Child custody and visitation can make up some of the most stressful parts of a divorce. You want the best for your family, but your co-parent may not agree with how to move forward. You may face delicate negotiations where emotions and stakes run high for everyone.
According to the State of Georgia, the most important factor in child custody arrangements is the best interest of the child. Even if your divorce is mostly amicable, you must still negotiate the logistics of sharing physical and/or legal custody of your children with your co-parent.
An experienced legal team will know how to use all the tools available to get the best possible result for your family – whether that involves mediation, negotiation, a collaborative process, or going to court. For example, your lawyer can help you determine:
- The child-care responsibilities each parent will take on after the split
- How much time each parent will get to spend with their children and in what context
- Which parent gets ultimate decision-making power over their children’s lives
- How to handle custody if one parent wants to relocate (for example, at least 50 miles away from Fulton or Gwinnett counties or to a state other than Georgia)
Every child custody case is different, because no two families are the same. An arrangement that works for one family may not fit another. At Cheeley Legal, we look at the unique facts of your case and come up with creative legal solutions catered to your needs. We know how personal child custody cases can get, and we’re here to support you every step of the way.
Georgia Child Custody Laws
Georgia law prioritizes your child’s best interests in all custody proceedings.
Children as young as 14 may choose which parent they’d like to live with, while Superior Court judges may consider the preferences of children as young as 11 in their decision. Still, a judge may rule differently if following the child’s wishes would be against the child’s best interests.
In addition to your child’s preference, Georgia Superior Court judges are also likely to consider, among other factors:
- The strength of the bond between each child and each parent
- Which arrangement will best maintain the status quo for the children in order to maintain a stable upbringing, especially for younger children
- Each parent’s willingness to cooperate with each other – that means trying to undermine your co-parent in custody proceedings is likely to backfire
- Whether there’s any evidence of domestic violence in the relationship
- If either parent has an addiction (like gambling, alcohol, or drugs) or other life circumstances (unstable lifestyle) that would put the child’s well-being at risk
- How child care has been divided between the parents so far – which parent most often watches or feeds their children, takes their children to school and is the point of contact for teachers, schedules and takes their children to doctor’s appointments, spends time playing with their children and helping with their homework, etc.
- Whether a parent has the resources, capacity, and support network to support the child
- Whether a parent spends a significant chunk of their time outside the home
- Whether either parent has a criminal record or lives with other people
Unless there’s a legitimate reason to keep a parent out of a child’s life, Georgia Superior Courts prefer for children to maintain a relationship with both of their parents.
If you find yourself having to fight for custody, you’ll need evidence such as texts, emails, transaction receipts, school documents, or witness statements and testimony to back up your case. The stronger your body of evidence, the greater your chances of success.
When you work with the team of Joseph Cheeley, the experienced child custody lawyer at Cheeley Legal, we look at all the facts of your case and determine which ones are the most important to the outcome of your custody case. We can then help you get the evidence you need for a favorable resolution.
Common Visitation and Parenting Plans
In Georgia, there are two types of child custody – physical custody and legal custody.
- Physical custody determines when, where, and how the child will live with each parent
- Legal custody determines who will make important decisions about the child’s life, such as medical care, education, religious upbringing, and extracurricular activities
The court may grant you either sole custody or have you share joint custody with your co-parent. But joint custody doesn’t necessarily mean that each parent’s involvement will be equal.
Most often, one parent will have “primary” custody as the person making most, if not all, of the important decision related to their child’s well-being. Even when parents share joint legal custody, one parent has to have tie-breaking power if they disagree with their co-parent – to avoid a stalemate.
One of the most common custody and visitation arrangements involves alternating weekends.
In this parenting plan, the child stays with the “primary” custodial parent during weekdays and with the non-custodial parent on alternating weekends – or about 20% of the time. Depending on various factors, this plan could be 24%, 30%, 40%, to approximately equal.
You and your co-parent can always negotiate or mediate a custody arrangement with the help of legal counsel. But if you’re unable to resolve any part of your custody arrangement, a Georgia Superior Court judge has the ultimate discretion to act in the best interest of the child.
Child Custody Modifications
As time goes on, lives change and children grow. The child custody agreement you had when your child was two years old may not work as well when your child is ten. As their extracurricular activities change, parents may have to adjust to balance childcare duties. You may also have to make child custody modifications when you or your co-parent changes jobs or relocates.
Can a Child Custody Order Be Changed in Georgia?
You and your co-parent always have the option to modify your initial physical child custody arrangement, parenting time, or visitation, by mutual agreement if the court order allows it, either through negotiation, mediation, or collaboration.
But if you cannot agree, or if one parent wants to modify the order and the other doesn’t, you may have to go to court. Custody modifications are likely to be successful if you can prove that:
- There has been a material change in circumstances, and
- The modification is in your child’s best interests
A “material change” in life circumstances could mean a lost job, a new job, a move or relocation, either parent getting remarried, or even a drop in your child’s grades at school.
You may also get a child custody modification if your co-parent interferes with your custody or visitation rights, as that would be a violation of your custody order.
Visitation rights may be modified once every 2 years without showing any change in circumstances, although the judge has discretion over whether the modification is in the child’s best interest.
Contempt of Child Custody Orders
Always keep a record of any child custody violations by your co-parent. Write down when and where the violation happened, hold onto texts or emails that back up your experience, and note the names of any witnesses who can back up your experience. Violations could look like:
- Being habitually late or combative during custody exchanges,
- Blocking the other parent’s legally protected visitation rights, or
- Violating provisions of the custody order concerning the care of the child
Repeatedly violating custody orders, even if not intentional, can result in that parent being held in contempt. This can result in penalties, fines, or even jail time. Interfering with a custody order can even amount to a criminal act in Georgia, with serious consequences.
What Happens If a Parent Violates a Child Custody Order in Georgia?
If you your co-parent violates the custody order, you should avoid the urge to take matters into your own hands. Interfering with your co-parent’s custody in retaliation could also be illegal and may subject you to contempt of court sanctions.
The best course of action in the case of a child custody violation is to talk to a Georgia child custody lawyer as soon as possible, especially if your co-parent keeps your child away from you. The team at Cheeley Legal can help you take immediate action to protect your rights and your children under the full power of the law.