Georgia courts use the "best interest of the child" standard to make child custody decisions. Specifically, judges refer to Georgia Code Section 19-9-3 which says:
The duty of the judge . . . shall be to exercise discretion to look to and determine solely what is for the best interest of the child and what will best promote the child's welfare and happiness and to make his or her award accordingly.
How Courts Make Child Custody Decisions in Georgia
Georgia law directs the court to consider the following list of specific factors when deciding what is in the best interest of a child:
- the love, affection, bonding, and emotional ties existing between each parent and the child
- the love, affection, bonding, and emotional ties existing between the child and his or her siblings, half-siblings, and step-siblings, and where the other children live
- each parent’s capacity to give the child love, affection, and guidance and to continue the child’s education and upbringing
- each parent's understanding of the child and the child's needs
- each parent’s capacity to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care, day-to-day needs, and other necessary basics, considering the potential payment of child support by the other parent
- each parent’s home environment considering the nurturance and safety of the child rather than superficial or material factors
- the importance of continuity in the child's life and the length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment
- the stability of the family unit of each of the parents, including the presence of support systems that may benefit the child
- the mental and physical health of each parent, except as prohibited by other Georgia laws
- each parent's involvement in the child's educational, social, and extracurricular activities
- each parent's employment schedule as it relates to the ability to care for the child
- the child’s home, school, and community record, as well as any health or educational special needs of the child
- each parent's past performance and relative abilities for future performance of parenting responsibilities
- each parent’s willingness and ability to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent, consistent with the best interest of the child
- any recommendation by a court-appointed custody evaluator or guardian ad litem
- any evidence of family violence or sexual, mental, or physical child abuse or criminal history of either parent, including the safety of the other parent as well as the safety of the child
- any evidence of substance abuse by either parent.
In cases where the child is at least 14 years old, the child has the right to choose which parent to live with. The judge must grant the child’s wish unless the judge finds it is not in the child’s best interest. If the child is at least 11 years old but not yet 14, the judge must consider the child’s wishes but has broad discretion whether or not to follow those wishes.
Generally, the law gives Georgia judges a lot of flexibility to establish parental rights and responsibilities based on the best interest of the child. Unlike judges in many other states, Georgia judges aren’t required to start from the presumption that joint custody and shared parenting time will be in the child's best interest. They may consider all factors and all types of custody arrangements when making a decision.
Court Should be Your Last Resort
Going to court to get custody of a child will be stressful for you and, worse, tough on the children. Also, because judges have so much flexibility to make custody decisions, it leaves the family vulnerable to the biased opinions of individual judges. For these reasons and more, a court case is something to pursue only if all other options—like negotiation and mediation—have failed. Take advantage of all the resources available to you for creating a parenting plan before subjecting yourself and your kids to a court battle.
Studying the law. This article summarizes the key factors courts use to make custody decisions in Georgia. That said, family law is a complicated subject and laws do change. We recommend that you read the full version of Georgia Code Section 19-9-3.
Working with a lawyer. If you’re working with a lawyer, mediator, or both, ask them for help understanding how Kentucky law applies to your specific circumstances.
Finding your local family court. In Georgia, family law cases are handled in the county superior courts. Be sure to take advantage of any self-help resources your court offers.