When the parents of a child do not live together — either because of a divorce or because they were never married — Georgia courts will step in to determine who will be granted custody.
In Georgia, there are two sides to most child custody cases: physical and legal custody. Physical custody refers the parent with whom the child lives most of the time. In most cases, one parent will be granted primary physical custody and the other will be granted visitation and parenting time. Legal custody involves the power to make important decisions about the child's upbringing, such as schooling, health care and religious education. Legal custody can be awarded to one or both parents.
How Is Custody Decided?
When a married couple divorces, there is no automatic presumption about which parent will be awarded primary custody. Both the mother and the father start off on equal footing.
This isn't always true, though, when a child is born outside of wedlock. In those cases, the mother will automatically be granted custody unless the father has legitimated the child. This can be done either by a voluntary agreement between the parents or by pursuing a legitimation action in court. Simply putting the father's name on the birth certificate is not enough.
After the custody case is filed, the parents will appear in court, where a judge will review the evidence and hear testimony. The judge will look at the whole picture to determine what custody arrangement will be in the best interests of the child. In doing so, the judge will consider a number of factors, including the following:
- The bond between each parent and the child
- Whether the child has lived with one parent more often
- The extent to which each parent contributed to a satisfactory and stable home life
- Each parent's physical and mental health
- Any evidence of abuse, chemical dependency or criminal behavior
- Each parent's ability to meet the child's educational needs
- Each parent's ability to meet the child's basic material needs, including food, clothing and medical care
- The extent to which each parent has been involved in the child's social, educational and extracurricular activities
In custody cases involving older children, the judge may ask the child if he or she has a preference about where to live. Children age 14 and older get to choose which parent to live with, unless the judge finds that the choice is not in the child's best interest. Children between the ages of 11 and 14 may express a preference, although that preference is merely a factor in the judge's decision.
Georgia child custody cases can be very complex, and they almost always involve a lot of heightened emotions. It is important to strike a balance between advocating for your position and not disparaging the other parent or asking the child to make an uncomfortable decision. If you are seeking custody of your child, talk with an experienced Georgia family law attorney who can help you make your case.