When divorce happens and young children are involved, there is nothing more important that making a plan for how the children will be cared for. Many factors are considered when deciding custody and a parenting plan. Joining us today is Nancy Richardson, an attorney at Stewart, Melvin & Frost. Nancy will help have a better understanding of child custody laws in Georgia.
Question: Children are sometimes caught in the middle in a divorce. Nancy, can you tell us the options when it comes to custody?
Nancy: The term custody includes two types – legal custody, which concerns decision-making, and physical custody, which concerns where the child lives, attends school, etc. Joint legal custody is the norm in the State of Georgia. This is when the parents share decision making authority regarding the minor child.
Sole custody is very unusual and it means – whether in terms of legal or physical custody – that all of the custodial rights are assigned to one parent and the other parent has no CUSTODIAL rights, although he/ she may have VISITATION rights. “Sole custody” means a person, including, but not limited to, a parent, has been awarded permanent custody of a child by a court order. Normally a sole custodian has the rights and responsibilities for major decisions concerning the child, including the child’s education, health care, extracurricular activities, and religious training, and the noncustodial parent shall have the right to visitation or parenting time – but while exercising visitation, that parent is not considered the custodial parent.
That one parent is awarded sole custody does not alleviate the other parent of his or her obligations, such as child support; it also does not give the sole custodial the right to interfere with or deny the other parent’s visitation rights. Other less common but acceptable arrangements include “joint custody” — where both parents are custodial parents (sharing both legal custody and physical custody — (usually a 50/50 split). In joint custody cases, neither parent’s time with the children is labeled as VISITATION – and even less common is “split custody” – where each is the custodial parent of at least one child, and has VISITATION time with the other child or children.
Question: How do divorced parents make decisions regarding their children?
Nancy: Typically, there are four areas in which the decisions are required to be made jointly unless one parent has sole custody: religious upbringing of the children; medical care of the children; extracurricular activities; and education. Even though a joint legal custodial arrangement requires that the parents share decision-making, the courts will designate one parent to have final decision-making authority in the event that the parties cannot agree.
For parents with joint legal custody, final decision-making authority does not allow for a parent to make a unilateral decision. Even though one parent is designated to have final decision-making authority, that parent must still consult with the other parent before making any major decisions regarding the children.
Question: Is there something the parents can do that makes the decision-making easier?
Nancy: Some states, including Georgia, require that a parenting plan be filed with the court as part of the child custody agreement. A Parenting Plan which is a written document of rules and ideals that divorced couples with children mutually agree upon in the future raising of their children. The main part of a Parenting Plan revolves around scheduling such as an agreed-upon visitation schedule, residential schedule and holiday schedule.
Whether or not it is required, a Parenting Plan makes good sense and is proven to be in the best interest of the children. Divorcing parents need to remember that they may be permanently separating – but they will be parents together of their children for a lifetime – and they need to take seriously the commitments of most parenting plans such as to discuss decisions in advance, to foster the child’s love and respect of the OTHER parent, not to speak negatively about the other parent in the child’s hearing OR allow others to do so, etc.
Question: At any point can a child decide which parent he or she wants to live with?
Nancy: In Georgia if the child is 14 or older he or she has the right to select the parent they wish to live with. The judge will honor the child’s wish unless the judge determines that is not in the best interest of the child. If the child has reached the age of 11 but not 14 years, the judge shall consider the opinion of the child in determining which parent shall have custody. The judge shall have complete discretion in making this determination.
The most important thing the parents should do is not put children in the position of having to choose one parent or the other. Normally, children love both their parents and will do all they can to avoid hurting the feelings of either parent, including telling both parents they want to live with that parent.