Judges in Georgia base custody and visitation orders on the best interests of children. Before a court enters such orders, parents must submit parenting plans (either separately or jointly) including, among other things, a detailed parenting schedule, a description of how parents will share decision-making, a proposal for handling transportation of children, and provisions addressing communication with children while they are in the other parent's care. Even when parenting plans adequately cover all the details, however, circumstances can change, and modifications (changes) to original parenting orders may be necessary.
This article explains the rules for modification of child custody and visitation in Georgia. For more information on Georgia family law, see our Georgia Divorce and Family Law page.
A parent (or another party with visitation rights) can ask the court to modify visitation or parenting time once in each two-year period following an initial entry of judgment in a case without having to show a change in circumstances.
Modification of custody orders on the other hand, are allowed only on the basis that a significant change in family circumstances has taken place since the original order. If the change has affected the best interests of the child, a court might find that modification is appropriate. The parent requesting the change in custody will have to submit a new proposed parenting plan to the court.
A Georgia court will always consider a modification to custody if a custodial parent plans to move to a new residence. Under former Georgia law (and current law in some states) courts would generally allow a custodial parent to move with a child unless the other parent could demonstrate that the move would be harmful to the child.
Under current Georgia law, a planned move by a parent with sole or joint custody is always a sufficient basis for a modification hearing. The court will consider whether the best interests of the child require a change in custody in light of all applicable circumstances.
Parents must inform each other of any planned change in residence. A custodial parent must give anyone with visitation rights or court-ordered parenting time at least 30 days advanced notice before a planned move and must include the full address of the new residence.
In Georgia, a child 14 or older may choose which parent to live with, and a judge will honor the decision as long as it's in the child's best interests. If a child 14 or older requests a change of custodial parent, this will automatically be a sufficient change of circumstances for a custody re-evaluation, unless the court has already granted the child a request for a change within the past two years. The judge will give great consideration to the child's wishes, but will still evaluate other circumstances bearing on the child's best interests.
A child who is at least 11 may also state a preference of which parent to live with, but the judge will review the overall circumstances more closely before accommodating the preference. In some cases a court will appoint a neutral third party called a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) to represent the child and help the judge make a decision. The GAL can investigate the child's home and school situation and contact parties with information about the child, such as teachers, doctors, and therapists.
A judge can also grant a temporary change of custody for a period of up to 6 months for a child between 11 and 14. A judge is more likely to honor a request for a change in custodial parent made by a child of this age if the request is based on the child's wish to accompany an older sibling who is going to live with the other parent. A parent can also ask a judge to modify custody orders for younger children on the basis that an older child has requested a change in custody.
If a non-custodial parent demonstrates that the custodial parent has become unfit or unable to care for a child, this will also justify a modification. If the situation is serious, for example, if the custodial parent has developed a mental illness or a drug abuse problem that affects a child's safety, the court might consider the modification request on an emergency basis. In less clear situations, a court will consider all of the facts of a case before deciding whether or not a change in circumstances is substantial enough to justify re-evaluation of custody. An improvement in the health or home situation of the non-custodial parent may be a major factor.
A parent in the military must give the other parent written notice of an upcoming deployment within two weeks of learning about the deployment or immediately if the deployment is less than two weeks away. A deploying parent with sole, primary, or joint physical custody of a child is entitled to a temporary modification of a parenting plan during the deployment.
On the parent's request, a court will implement provisions designed to ensure contact between the parent and the child immediately before, after, and during the deployment. The plan can specify methods such as telephone calls, emails, or internet video conferences. The temporary modification should also include a transitional plan for return to the pre-deployment parenting arrangement as soon as reasonably possible after the deployment ends.
A deploying service member can also ask the court to delegate parenting time temporarily to an extended family member, a person who lives with the parent, or another person who has a close relationship with the child. This allows a court, for example, to let a child continue living at home with a grandparent or a stepparent during the parent's deployment.
Courts won't make permanent changes to a parenting plan until at least 90 days after a deploying parent returns home, and the court will approach any request for modification after that time by presuming that the former plan is still in the child's best interests. Courts attempt to schedule all hearings involving a child with a deploying parent as promptly as possible.
These are just a few of the special legal provisions that apply to service member parents and their co-parents. If you need additional information or legal advice, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.