Georgia Child Custody & Visitation Overview

Custody and visitation can be decided in several types of cases: divorce, separation, legitimation (details below) or — for parents returning to court — change of custody.

Georgia encourages parents to settle custody and visitation, submitting an agreement to the court for approval.

If parents can't settle, their case proceeds to trial, where a judge decides what's most suitable for the children. Children 14 or older can tell the judge which parent they want to live with, and the judge will order it, as long as the parent is fit for custody.

As you read, keep in mind every case is different and procedures may vary by county.

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Courts

Superior courts handle most family law cases in Georgia.

If you're seeking a divorce or separation, open your case with the superior court in your spouse's county of residence.

For a legitimation case, which can include paternity (more below), file in the mother's county of residence.

If you're seeking to modify a custody order, file with the superior court that made the initial order. If the children have since moved, you can file to register (or "domesticate") the case in their current county.

Legal and physical custody

Georgia courts most commonly award parents joint legal custody and give one parent primary physical custody.

Joint legal custody allows both parents to make major decisions for their children. Their parenting plan (more below) specifies how they will divide or collaborate on decisions. For example, one parent may take charge of education issues, while both have to agree on medical decisions.

The parent with primary physical custody provides the main home for the children. The secondary parent gets less than 50 percent of custody time.

Less common are sole legal custody (which grants decision-making rights to one parent), joint physical custody (in which the children live with each parent for nearly equal time) and sole physical custody (which gives one parent all or nearly all parenting time).

Parents can agree to any of the above in a settlement, and the court will approve, as long as the children's interests are protected.

Parenting plans

Every case involving child custody requires a parenting plan. These plans detail legal and physical custody, child support, communication between parents and more.

Parents who agree on an arrangement can file a joint parenting plan to settle their case.

If they disagree, each parent files a proposed plan. At trial, the judge either selects one of the plans (making any necessary changes) or incorporates aspects of both into the final order.

Paternity and legitimation

When a woman married to a man gives birth, she and her husband have equal parental rights; the husband is presumed to be the father. Parents may challenge this, but the court doesn't have to overturn paternity if it's not in the child's best interest.

When an unmarried woman gives birth, she has sole custody of the child until a court rules otherwise. The father must establish paternity (that he is biologically a parent) and legitimacy (that designating him the legal father is in the child's best interest).

You can acknowledge paternity by signing your child's birth certificate, or you and the mother can complete an acknowledgement of paternity later. Alternatively, you or whoever takes care of the child can petition the court to establish paternity, and either a superior court or the Office of State Administrative Hearings will hear the case.

Next, you need a legitimation order, which shows you're fit to parent. The child's parent or legal guardian can sign a Consent to Legitimation form, included in the legitimation packet. Otherwise, you must prove your case in court.

For advice on child custody in same-sex relationships, consult a lawyer, as laws and practices are constantly evolving.

Factors in custody decisions

The judge assigns custody to the parent (or parents) who suits the best interests of the children, regardless of the parent's gender, race or sexual orientation.

The judge considers each parent's:

  • Bond with the children
  • Ability and desire to provide the children with affection and guidance
  • Familiarity with the children's needs, plus capacity to provide for those needs
  • Home environment
  • Mental and physical health
  • History of crime, violence or substance abuse
  • Availability to care for the children and past time spent with them
  • Involvement in the children's educational, social and extracurricular activities
  • Participation in a parenting class (required in most counties)
  • Commitment to fostering the children's relationships with the other parent

In addition, the judge considers each child's:

  • Mental and physical health
  • Special needs
  • Age
  • Behavior
  • Bonds with extended family
  • Private testimony (if applicable)

Children who are 14 or older can file an Affidavit of Custody Election explaining which parent they want to live with. The judge will approve the arrangement, granted the parent is fit to have custody.

A recommendation from a custody evaluator or guardian ad litem can also impact the judge's decision.

Occasionally, the judge grants custody for six months to see if an arrangement works before making a permanent decision.

Length of custody proceedings

Uncontested cases, in which parents agree on all terms, can conclude within weeks if the court calendar allows and no special circumstances prevent the judge from approving the settlement.

A case is contested if the parties disagree on one or more issues. Generally, a contested divorce case that goes to trial takes six months to a year. Contested legitimation cases can last up to a few months if they require paternity testing and the parties disagree strongly on custody.

Either parent can request a jury trial to resolve child support and other financial matters in a divorce. The parents would still have a bench trial (in which the judge makes decisions alone) for nonfinancial issues, such as custody. Jury trials significantly extend the legal process, not only because they take up additional time but because juries are only summoned a few times a year.

Costs to expect

Going to trial is always expensive. A contentious custody trial can cost more than $30,000 in attorney fees. Adding a jury trial can double the cost because of the extra time required — both in court and in preparations.

Fees vary based on the attorney's location and experience. Hourly rates in cities often range from $250 to $600, while attorneys in rural areas tend to charge $150 to $250 per hour. Most attorneys make clients pay some of the fee up front (called a "retainer").

Occasionally, attorneys charge flat fees, which can save parents money.

Some attorneys provide pro bono (free) representation for people who can't afford to pay. Legal aid offices often have directories of such lawyers.

If you must represent yourself (more below), consider hiring an attorney in a limited capacity. They can work on specific issues in your case and leave the rest to you.

In addition to attorney fees, you'll have to pay court fees, and you may have to pay for a guardian ad litem or custody evaluation.

The most cost-effective way to resolve custody and visitation is to reach an agreement. Even settling late in the court process is much cheaper than going to trial.

Representing yourself

Although it's not recommended, you can represent yourself in court. As a self-representing ("pro se") party, you must abide by the same laws and rules as attorneys.

Pro se representation is most common when parents settle. It's trickier when parents disagree. Divorce can be particularly complex because it involves property division.

If you choose to litigate on your own, familiarize yourself with all the resources available to parents seeking custody. Many attorneys offer free or low-cost consultations before you begin your case. You should always have your paperwork reviewed by a professional.

Some alternative dispute resolution methods do require an attorney, such as collaborative law and late case evaluation.

Confidentiality

In most counties, court proceedings are open to the public unless the judge finds a reason to close the courtroom, like disruptive interest from the media.

In some counties, parents can elect to have their case heard in private. This allows parents to decide who attends. If they waive their right to appeal, the proceedings don't go on public record.

In all other custody cases, the public can access court records, except reports from custody evaluations and transcripts from a child's private testimony.

Georgia child custody and visitation laws

For more information on child custody and visitation in Georgia, see Title 19, Chapter 9 of the Domestic Relations Law.

Staying organized

The process of deciding child custody requires serious organization. You may need to create a parenting plan, draft multiple parenting time schedules, track your time with your child, calculate expenses and beyond.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of that in one place.

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, an expense tracker and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

Custody X Change is software that creates customizable parenting plans and custody schedules.

Make My Georgia Plan Now

Custody X Change is software that creates customizable parenting plans and custody schedules.

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Custody X Change is software that creates customizable parenting plans and custody schedules.

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