In Georgia, there are two types of child custody: legal custody and physical custody. Physical custody deals with which parent the child or children will primarily reside with. There are four types of physical custody arrangements: primary custody, joint custody, sole custody, and split custody. Legal custody, on the other hand, addresses which parent will make final decisions on various matters related to the child or children’s upbringing. Similar to physical custody, legal custody may either be granted to one parent or may be granted to both parents as a joint legal custody arrangement.
In most child custody cases in Georgia, both legal and physical custody are shared between the parents. The parents will likely share in decision making regarding the child or children and physical custody is also shared. Below provides an overview of the different types of child custody arrangements in Georgia.
What is Joint Legal Custody in Georgia?
Legal custody of a child is a determination as to which parent will have the authority to make major decisions concerning the child or children involved. Legal custody may either be granted to one parent or may be granted to both parents in a joint legal custody arrangement. In most cases, Georgia courts will award joint legal custody unless unique circumstances of a case warrant any other form of custody arrangement. Because physical and legal custody are two distinct concepts, courts may award primary physical custody to one parent and award joint legal custody to both parents. Accordingly, one parent will be awarded primary physical custody of the child while the other parent receives secondary or non-custodial rights.
In joint legal custody, there are four areas in which the decisions are required to be made jointly: religious, upbringing of the child or children, medical care of the child or children, extracurricular activities, and education. Even though a court delegate certain responsibilities in relation to the child or children between the parents, a final decision maker is required in the event that the parties cannot agree. Courts usually award the primary custodial parent the authority for final decision making (in other words, the “tie-breaking” authority) over any of the decisions in relation to the major life aspects of the child or children. However, final decision making authority, does not allow for one parent to make unilateral decisions. Even if one parent retains final decision making authority, that parent will still be required to consult with the other parent before making any major decisions. The parent with final decision making authority must address all issues or changes of current status to the other parent. Joint legal custody also gives the secondary parent the ability to access all necessary information about the child.
What is Joint Physical Custody in Georgia?
According to Georgia law, joint physical custody means that “physical custody is shared by the parents in such a way as to assure the child of substantially equal time and contact with both parents.” [O.C.G.A. § 19-9-6(6)]. For instance, joint custody arrangements can involve parents enjoying parenting time with the child on a weekly basis or on a daily basis (splitting each week).
Although joint physical custody is allowed under Georgian law, it is not the norm in Georgia and courts in Georgia do not routinely award “equal” (in other words 50/50) joint physical custody. This is because joint physical custody can be hard for parents and also for children who must constantly move from parent to parent. It can interfere with the stability and consistency of a child’s life such as with participating in school, social or extracurricular activities. Additionally, it may be hard for the parents to maintain a joint physical custody arrangement due to their own schedules. Because joint physical custody is a parenting arrangement that can typically only be accomplished by agreement, both parents must work well together and communicate effectively to come up with an agreement and abide by it. Nonetheless, there are benefits associated with joint physical custody arrangement including ensuring that the child has adequate opportunity to build a strong and lasting bond with both parents.
Because of the difficulties and hardships involved, judges in many cases will assign one parent as the primary physical custodian and the other parent as the secondary physical custodian (also called the non-custodial parent). The fact that the court awarded one parent primary physical custody of a child or children does not necessarily means that the other parent is unfit or a bad parent. Primary physical custody simply means that the child will reside with that parent the majority of the time. The exact percentage of time assigned to each parent for spending time with the child or children varies from case to case depending on several factors which take into account the child’s best interests. For example, a court may consider who has been the child’s primary care giver during the course of the parents’ marriage or relationship, who has more concrete plans for the child, or which parent is more capable of engaging the child in appropriate activities.
What is Sole Custody in Georgia?
Sole custody refers to a custody arrangement where only one parent has physical custody and legal custody of a child. Under Georgia law, the parent awarded sole custody of a child by court order has the rights and responsibilities for major decisions concerning the child, including the child’s education, health care, extracurricular activities, and religious training. [O.C.G.A. § 19-9-6(11)]. The non custodial parent, a person who has not been awarded custody of a child by court order, will normally enjoys the right to visitation or parenting time with the child.
In most states, courts are moving away from awarding sole custody to one parent and they are often awarding physical custody to one parent and joint legal custody to both parents. Georgia courts also will not usually award sole custody of the child or children to one parent. This is in line with the state’s policy to ensure that children have frequent contact with both parents after a divorce or separation. In very rare cases, such as where one of the parents is found to be unfit by the judge, the court awards sole physical and legal custody to one parent. Substantial evidence must be provided to prove that a parent is unfit for custody. Where child abuse, child negligence, substance abuse, or any other illegal activities are involved and substantiated by professional third party opinions, clinical reports, and police reports, the court is likely to award sole custody. Having sole custody, however, does not alleviate the other parent of their obligations, such as child support obligations.
What is Split Custody in Georgia?
Split parenting or split custody refers to a situation where there are two or more children of the same parents and at least one child spends the majority of his or her time with one parent and at least one other child spends the majority of time with the other parent. In a splitting parenting arrangement, each parent is the custodial parent of any child spending more than fifty percent (50%) of the time with that parent and is the non-custodial (or secondary) parent of any child spending more than fifty percent (50%) of the time with the other parent. Therefore, there are two custodial parents and two noncustodial parents, but no child shall have more than one custodial parent or noncustodial parent. Typically, the children would have joint visitation with one of the parents to ensure that they would still have significant interaction with each other while growing up.
Split custody is generally not preferred by a court. Rather, keeping the children together is one of the factors courts consider in determining the appropriate custody arrangement in a case (also referred to as the best interests of the child or children standard). Therefore, a court will order this type of arrangement only if it makes sense for the parties and is the most beneficial for the children involved under the circumstances. It is important to note that split custody arrangements do complicate determining the child support to be paid, usually requiring a child support obligation to be assigned to each parent. Usually one of the parents will have a higher child support obligation than the other parent. Usually the parent with the higher child support obligation will pay their amount less the amount they would receive to the other parent. This arrangement is usually made a part of the Child Support Addendum court order, and simplifies the child support payment process.
Custody in a Georgia Uncontested Divorce
Georgia divorces involving minor children always have to address the issue of child custody and visitation. Surprisingly, this is not usually as big a problem in settling the case as one might expect. Many couples just simply think that the issue does not need to be addressed at all. However, Georgia law does require a Parenting Plan to be signed, notarized and filed in all uncontested divorce cases. Once the parties realize that the Parenting Plan can be treated as a fall back provision if the parties otherwise cannot agree on visitation, they can usually come to an agreement regarding custody and visitation.
Obtaining Legal Help for your Georgia Child Custody Case
Because child custody matters in Georgia often turn on minor details, it is important for you to consult with an attorney to help you place yourself in the best position possible to receive custody of your child. Be sure to contact an experienced child custody attorney in your area before you and your spouse file for divorce or for child custody petition. Our experienced Georgia child custody, child support, family law and divorce can be reached by calling 770-609-1247. Contact >>