How is Child Custody Decided in Georgia?

Unmarried and divorced parents must understand Georgia law

Georgia law makes it clear that, in deciding custody, there will be no assumptions in the law as to which parent is more deserving of custody: Both are on equal footing when they enter the courthouse. As in most states, a judge will base their custody decision on what is in the child’s best interest.

However, Georgia law also makes clear that parents’ agreements on custody are favored, and indicates that courts should be a last resort. Judges can help by supplementing agreements as they see fit, but otherwise, a judge is required to explain why they decided differently than an agreement filed by the parents.

How to determine what is in the child’s best interest

If parents cannot resolve child custody issues on their own, the courts will decide what is in a child’s best interest by evaluating different factors, known as the best interest factors. In Georgia, the law lists 17 factors a court may consider in evaluating what custody situation is in the child’s best interest, and a judge is not limited to just those factors. It’s a lengthy list compared to other states, and includes:

  • The love, affection, bonding and emotional ties existing between each parent and the child
  • The capacity and disposition of each parent to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care, day-to-day needs and other necessary basic care, with consideration made for the potential payment of child support by the other parent
  • The willingness and ability of each of the parents to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent, consistent with the best interest of the child

Determining physical custody will decide where the child primarily lives, whereas determining legal custody will decide which parent has authority to make important decisions for the child. Both physical and legal custody can be awarded to one parent or jointly between both parents. However, decisions over the child’s parenting plan may be more significant than those custody determinations.

Parents must file a parenting plan with the court

Parents should understand before they file a custody or divorce matter in court that the law requires they file a parenting plan. A parenting plan includes the day-to-day schedule and necessary decision-making for the child. The parenting plan is required to include at least the following:

  • Where and when a child will be in each parent's physical care, designating where the child will spend each day of the year
  • How holidays, birthdays, vacations, school breaks and other special occasions will be spent with each parent
  • Transportation arrangements including how the child will be exchanged between the parents
  • Whether supervision will be needed for any parenting time
  • An allocation of decision-making authority to one or both parents with regard to the child's education, health, extracurricular activities and religious upbringing
  • Limitations of non-custodial parent to contact or receive information regarding the child

If a parent fails to file the required parenting plan with the court, the court may adopt the other parent’s plan. However, parents may decide to file a parenting plan together. To determine a fair parenting plan for your child, residents should first consult with an experienced Georgia family law attorney. That attorney can help resolve cases amicably or, if necessary, represent parents in arguing for their children’s best interests in court.

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