When parents separate or divorce in Georgia, a judge (or the parents if they can reach an agreement) will decide how couples will share custody and visitation of their children. When making custody decisions, a judge will examine the child’s best interests.
This article provides an overview of child custody in Georgia. If you have specific questions after reading this article, contact a local family law attorney for advice.
Georgia recognizes two types of custody – physical and legal custody. A parent with physical custody lives with the child. Parents can share physical custody (called “joint custody”) or one parent may have sole physical custody. When parents share joint custody in Georgia, they have roughly equal time with the child. For example, one parent may have four overnights per week and the other parent may have three.
A parent with legal custody may make major medical, legal, educational, and religious decisions on the child’s behalf. In many cases, a judge will award parents joint legal custody. Joint legal custody in Georgia means that both parents have a say in all major decisions involving their children.
Generally, in cases where parents share legal and physical custody, one parent will be designated the “primary custodial parent.” This parent has the final say in decisions involving the child when the parents can’t agree. Generally, the parent who spends more time with the child will be designated the “custodial parent” and the other parent will be designated as the “noncustodial parent”.
Georgia’s custody laws require a judge to make a child’s best interests the focus of any custody decision. A judge will consider several factors to determine what kind of custody arrangement best serves a child’s needs.
Child custody laws in Georgia require a judge to consider the following factors, and any other factor that impact’s a child’s best interests:
In some cases, a judge will appoint a guardian ad litem (a person whose job is to represent the interests of the child in court) or a custody evaluator to meet with the family and make a custody recommendation to the judge.
Although a judge is not required to follow the recommendation of the guardian ad litem or the custody evaluator, judges will give professionals’ input significant weight when determining the best interests of the child. See Ga. Code § 19-9-3 (2020).
Georgia law requires divorcing parents to submit a parenting plan to the court in every case where custody is at issue. Parents can submit a joint parenting plan or each parent may submit a separate plan. A parenting plan outlines the child’s needs and how the child’s time should be divided between the parents. It allocates decision-making authority between parents and explains the parameters of each parent’s access to the child including legal and physical custody.
A judge will use the parents’ proposed parenting plan or plans as part of the information to be considered in determining the best interest of the child. The court may also hold a court hearing, at which both parents, and possibly other witnesses, may testify. See Ga. Code § 19-9-1 (2020).
Georgia custody laws allow a child who is 11 or older to state a preference as to which parent the child wishes to live with. A child’s choice of custodial parent doesn’t control a Georgia court’s custody decision. Instead, a judge will weigh an older child’s preference along with several other factors to determine the custody arrangement best suited to the child’s needs.
Once a judge has issued a custody order, that order stays in place until a child reaches 18 or the order is modified. A parent who violates a custody order can face sanctions.
Sometimes life’s changing circumstances make it increasingly difficult to abide by the terms of a custody order. Over time, many families experience major life changes that require a custody modification.
Either parent can file a petition to modify custody. However, before a judge will grant a change to your custody order, the petitioning parent must prove that there’s been a material change in circumstances impacting the child’s well-being or a significant amount of time has passed since the last custody order was issued.
A court will grant the modification if it determines that a custody adjustment is in a child’s best interests. For more information about custody modifications, read our article “Modification of Child Custody and Visitation in Georgia”.