Child Custody Attorneys Serving Alpharetta and Woodstock, Georgia
We Are Committed to Protecting Family Rights
Where am I going to live? Who am I going to live with? Will I have to leave my school and my friends? Do I get a say?
These questions and many, many more can swirl through a child’s mind when he or she finds out that their parents are getting a divorce. Of course, children aren’t the only ones who wonder and worry about what their new life will be like during and after a divorce. Parents who are ending their marriage need to work through the practical challenges and the emotionally taxing process of establishing custody and visitation arrangements that balance their desires and needs with those of their child.
The deep bonds between parent and child and the intense feelings between divorcing parents often lead to acrimony and conflict in Georgia divorces. And while parents, like Georgia law, need to focus on what is in the best interests of the child, legitimate concerns and irrational emotions can make that easier said than done.
The Alpharetta and Woodstock child custody lawyers at North Metro Litigators understand how much parents want to protect and provide for their children. We also know that parents want as much as possible to keep their children out of the arguments and issues which led to the dissolution of their marriage. That is why our goal is to integrate those two objectives to reach solutions to child custody matters that minimize conflict, facilitate negotiated resolutions, and ensure that our clients and their children move forward with clarity and security.
Understanding the Types of Child Custody in Georgia
As any parent knows, there is much more involved in raising a child than providing them with a place to stay or getting them from place to place. Parenting involves decisions big and small, from what will happen on a given day to the values, traditions, or beliefs that will be instilled throughout their childhood.
As such, the term “custody” actually refers to two different concepts: physical custody and legal custody. It is important that parents understand the distinctions between the two as they work through the custody process.
Physical custody refers to where a child will live and who they will live with. Often, parents share physical custody of their children (known as joint physical custody), with one parent usually having primary physical custody, meaning that this parent’s household will be the main residence for the child(ren).
Depending on the arrangement, parents may split their time with their children 50/50 or agree to specific schedules, such as physical custody on the weekends or after school. Sole physical custody means that the child will reside with only one parent, whereas the other may or may not be granted visitation rights.
Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make key decisions regarding the child’s upbringing, such as where a child will be educated or what religious training the child will have. Parents often share legal custody, which means both parents must continue to work collaboratively in making decisions for their child.
Sometimes, however, only one parent is granted legal custody. When this occurs, the parent without legal custody does not have a right to make big, binding decisions on behalf of his or her child and cannot obstruct the decisions made by the other parent. Because legal custody plays a significant role in how a child is raised, it should not be overlooked or obscured by a focus on physical custody.
How is Child Custody Determined in Georgia?
As with every aspect of divorce, it is almost always preferable for parents to come to an amicable, fair, and equitable agreement as to custody arrangements. Given a choice, most parents would rather make the decisions that will govern their relationship with their child than have a stranger in a black robe make those decisions for them. This not only spares the couple and their child from unnecessary conflict during divorce proceedings, but it also increases the likelihood of cooperation long after the divorce is finalized.
Our child custody attorneys in Alpharetta and Woodstock, GA make every effort to help divorcing parents find the middle ground that best serves all parties. Of course, parents frequently cannot come together and reach a negotiated resolution as to some or all custody issues. When that happens, we aggressively pursue results most beneficial to our clients and their children.
If parents can agree on custody, it falls upon a Georgia family law judge to establish custody arrangements. When making such determinations, Georgia judges, like those in every other state, try to find the answer to one overarching question: “What is in the best interest of the child?”
How Does a Georgia Judge Decide What is in a Child’s “Best Interest”?
As a preliminary matter, and in contrast to the way the law used to be in the past, Georgia law explicitly provides that “there shall be no prima-facie right to the custody of the child in the father or mother. There shall be no presumption in favor of any particular form of custody, legal or physical, nor in favor of either parent.” O.C.G.A § 19-9-3(a)(1).
Rather, Georgia judges have broad discretion to evaluate a wide range of factors and circumstances to “determine solely what is for the best interest of the child and what will best promote the child’s welfare and happiness.” O.C.G.A § 19-9-3(a)(2).
Under Georgia law (O.C.G.A § 19-9-3(a)(3), the factors a judge may consider when making custody decisions and determining what is in the child’s best interest include, but are not limited to:
- The love, affection, bonding, and emotional ties existing between each parent and the child;
- The love, affection, bonding, and emotional ties existing between the child and his or her siblings, half siblings, and stepsiblings and the residence of such other children;
- The capacity and disposition of each parent to give the child love, affection, and guidance and to continue the education and rearing of the child;
- Each parent’s knowledge and familiarity of the child and the child’s needs;
- 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 home environment of each parent considering the promotion of nurturance and safety of the child rather than superficial or material factors;
- The importance of continuity in the child’s life and the length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity;
- The stability of the family unit of each of the parents and the presence or absence of each parent’s support systems within the community to benefit the child;
- The mental and physical health of each parent;
- Each parent’s involvement, or lack thereof, in the child’s educational, social, and extracurricular activities;
- Each parent’s employment schedule and the related flexibility or limitations, if any, of a parent to care for the child;
- The home, school, and community record and history of the child, as well as any health or educational special needs of the child;
- Each parent’s past performance and relative abilities for future performance of parenting responsibilities;
- The willingness and ability of each of the parents to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent, consistent with the best interest of the child;
- Any recommendation by a court appointed custody evaluator or guardian ad litem;
- Any evidence of family violence or sexual, mental, or physical child abuse or criminal history of either parent; and
- Any evidence of substance abuse by either parent.
What About the Child’s Wishes?
Naturally, the child may have something to say about what their post-divorce will look like and may have preferences as to where they will live and which parent they would prefer to live with What makes Georgia unique compared to most other states is that it does give older children a say in custody determinations. 14 years of age or older a definitive role in the determination of custody. Even kids younger than 14 may get a non-binding say in their custody arrangements.
For children 14 years of age or older, Georgia law gives the child the right to select the parent with whom he or she desires to live. The child’s choice is presumptive unless the selected parent is determined not to be in the best interests of the child, as when there are concerns about substance abuse, domestic violence or the parent’s ability to provide a healthy and safe environment for the child.
In cases in which the child has reached the age of 11 but not 14 years, a judge will consider the desires and educational needs of the child in determining which parent shall have custody. But the child’s wishes are not controlling, and judges have fairly broad discretion as to how much weight to give those wishes.
Of course, children can be subject to influence, and divorce can sometimes bring out the worst in parents, including using undue influence to sway the children in their direction by badmouthing the other parent or other improper means.
When a child’s preferences play a role in custody proceedings, the Alpharetta and Woodstock child custody lawyers at North Metro Litigators ensure that the child’s wishes are truly their own and not the result of interference by the other parent.
Georgia Parenting Plans
Whether through agreement or a judge’s order, all Georgia divorces in which custody is an issue must include a comprehensive parenting plan, approved by the judge, as part of the final divorce decree. The parties can submit a joint plan for the judge’s approval or they can submit competing plans, depending on whether they have resolved custody issues between themselves.
The parenting plan is the document which will govern the rights and obligations of the parents until and unless the order is modified or when the child turns 18. Georgia law requires that all parenting plans contain clear and detailed information about how the child will be raised and how the parents will interact with each other, including a recognition that “a close and continuing parent-child relationship and continuity in the child’s life will be in the child’s best interest.”
As set forth in O.C.G.A. § 19-9-1, all Georgia parenting plans must include details about 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 including the time of day that each event will begin and end;
- Transportation arrangements including how the child will be exchanged between the parents, the location of the exchange, how the transportation costs will be paid, and any other matter relating to the child spending time with each parent;
- Whether supervision will be needed for any parenting time and, if so, the particulars of the supervision;
- An allocation of decision-making authority to one or both of the parents with regard to the child’s education, health, extracurricular activities, and religious upbringing, and if the parents agree the matters should be jointly decided, how to resolve a situation in which the parents disagree on resolution; and
- What, if any, limitations will exist while one parent has physical custody of the child in terms of the other parent contacting the child and the other parent’s right to access education, health, extracurricular activity, and religious information regarding the child.
Speak With an Experienced Alpharetta and Woodstock Child Custody Lawyer at North Metro Litigators Today
Parents may make the decision to get divorced, but children must live with the fallout of that choice. They also must build a new life, and how and where they do so can be one of the most contentious issues in a divorce. Our child custody lawyers in Alpharetta and Woodstock work with parents to craft child custody arrangements which focus on the child’s best interests and ensure that the bonds between parent and child are preserved and strengthened during and after the divorce.