Georgia Court Process: 7 Steps to Child Custody

Litigating custody in Georgia involves seven main steps. Some may be skipped or rearranged and others added, depending on your circumstances and county.

At any point, parents can agree to settle and have a judge sign their parenting plan. Then they jump to Step 7 below.

Mediation, collaborative law and other alternative dispute resolution methods follow their own processes.

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Step 1: Preparation

Do your research and consider your options. Will you request sole, primary or joint physical custody? What about legal custody? What does your ideal visitation schedule look like?

Then, meet with a lawyer to come up with a legal strategy. Although not required, attorney representation is highly recommended. If you're unable to hire someone, go to a legal aid office or try a free or low-cost consultation with an attorney to get professional advice.

Step 2: Opening a case

Now open a case for divorce, separation or legitimation with your county's superior court. (If you're returning to court to modify a final order, you'll follow a different process.)

If you want a temporary court order, which directs custody for the duration of your case, you can request it at the same time.

You must officially notify the other parent of your filings through a process called service.

Possible: Emergency custody hearing

At any point, a parent may request an expedited hearing if their children are at risk of being harmed or removed from the state within the next few days. You should make the request as soon as you become aware of the threat.

If the judge considers your request valid, you'll have a hearing without the other parent present (called an "ex parte" hearing).

If the judge issues an emergency order, it stays in effect until the next hearing, when it can be terminated, extended or replaced by a temporary order.

Possible: Parenting seminar

Many counties require parents in a custody case to complete a parenting seminar. You can take it any time while your case is active, but taking it early can show your dedication.

During the online or in-person seminar, a counselor presents information on how to support your children through the case and beyond.

Parents do not have to attend together. If neither one attends, the court won't finalize the case. If only one attends, the court might freeze the other parent's visits with the children until they complete the class.

Step 3: First non-emergency appearance

First hearing

In most counties, your first non-emergency hearing takes place about four to six weeks into your case. You receive notice of the date by mail.

Procedures vary based on what parents have asked the court to do. Generally, the judge gathers information and, when necessary, assigns a guardian ad litem or evaluator. In a paternity case, the court announces the child's biological father at this hearing.

If you requested a temporary order, each parent can bring one witness to testify. You can also present your ideal parenting plan before the judge makes a decision. Or, if you've agreed on a temporary plan with the other parent, you can ask the judge to approve it.

30-day status conference

In Fulton County, parents attend a status conference 30 days after opening their case. A judge, judicial officer or staff attorney presides.

The presiding officer may assign a guardian ad litem or evaluator, much like in a first hearing. In addition, they help parents develop a timeline for getting to trial. And they may schedule a hearing about temporary orders if parents can't reach an interim agreement.

Possible: Mediation

In mediation, a neutral professional helps parents discuss potential compromises.

A few counties, such as Fulton, require all parents in custody cases to attend mediation. Elsewhere, judges order it on a case-by-case basis. And parents can always choose, together, to attend mediation voluntarily.

If mediation doesn't result in parents settling, they continue through the court process.

Step 4: Discovery

Discovery is when parties exchange information before trial. The process usually begins as soon as trial seems likely, and it can last months, happening alongside mediation or other requirements.

As part of discovery, you might be required to turn over text messages, emails, financial documents, medical records and more. And you can request similar information from the other parent.

You might also collect character reference letters from witnesses.

You might also participate in depositions — out-of-court interviews where parents and their witnesses answer questions from the other party under oath.

Step 5: Pre-trial appearances

You'll have a hearing roughly every 30 days between the initial filing and trial. Here, parents exchange discovery documents and give testimony.

In addition, Fulton County holds a status conference 60 and 120 days after a case opens. A judicial officer presides. No testimony is allowed.

At the 60-day conference, the parties address the most pressing unresolved issues, such as reaching a temporary agreement. If that's still not possible, the officer schedules a temporary orders hearing.

If the case remains open at the 120-day mark, the judicial officer assesses its progress in another conference, before sending it to trial.

Possible: Child's private testimony

The judge can order children who are 11 or older to testify in private, following a request from a guardian ad litem or parent. This allows children to express their feelings without pressure from parents.

The judge, child, guardian ad litem, court reporter and all lawyers in the case may attend the interview in the judge's chambers. Parents can neither attend nor read the transcript.

Step 6: Trial

If you cannot reach an agreement with the other parent, you'll ultimately end up in trial.

Also known as a final hearing, a trial is when the judge hears any evidence you haven't yet presented, listens to witnesses and issues a final decision.

Most custody trials conclude after a single day, but some last days, weeks or even months.

Step 7: Final custody order

Your case comes to a close when the court issues a final order. The order designates legal and physical custody and includes a detailed parenting plan with visitation schedule.

Parents can get a final order by drafting a parenting plan together and having it approved by the judge. Alternatively, the judge writes their ruling from trial in the form of a final order (or assigns one of the parents or lawyers in the case to write up the decision).

The order remains in effect until the children turn 18 or the court grants a modification. A parent can file an appeal if they believe the decision is unjustified or prejudiced.

Throughout your case

During the custody process, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft custody schedules, keep a log of interactions with the other parent and more.

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

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, digital journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Throughout your case, take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts.

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