Custody is one of the first issues to arise in divorce cases but is often misunderstood. If you are involved in a child custody case, here are five things you need to know.
1. Legal custody refers to decision-making concerning the children and access to their school and medical records. Most cases award joint legal custody to both parties because courts want both parents to be involved in the children's lives. However, since parents do not always agree on what is best for the children, courts identify one parent as the "final decision-maker" or parent with "tie-breaking authority." Normally, the parent who has primary physical custody also has tie-breaking authority for educational, health care, religious and extracurricular activities for the children.
2. Physical custody refers to where the children reside. In almost all cases, the courts will designate one parent as the primary physical custodian and the other parent as the secondary physical custodian. The parent who has primary physical custody generally has the children during the week and the secondary physical custodian typically alternates weekends and holidays although there are many, many possible parenting time schedules that can be adopted by the courts.
3. Sole custody is rarely requested and almost never granted. Sole custody grants one parent children 100% of the time and the other parent is given no parenting time. This is rarely done and reserved for situations in which are parent has been criminally charged with abuse of the children or done something that the courts considers extremely harmful and/or dangerous to the children.
4. Custody decisions are made based upon "the best interests of the children." Many considerations are factored into custody decisions, including which parent has been the primary caregiver for the children during the marriage, the work schedules of the parties, the stability of each parent, past or current drug or alcohol abuse, and the ability of each parent to provide for the mental, emotional, physical, educational, healthcare and other needs of the children. In short, custody decisions are not made in a vacuum. They are highly case sensitive as well as judge sensitive.
5. When children reach the age of fourteen in Georgia, they can elect which parent they want to live with giving rise to a change in circumstances that can be the basis for a change in the custodial parent. A 14-year old can file an Affidavit of Election once every two years; however, the child's selection will not be controlling if the Court finds that it is not in the child's best interests to live with that parent.
Children between the ages of 11 and 13 can also file an Affidavit of Election and while such affidavits may be considered by the court, they will not provide a basis for a change in custody absent other evidence of a substantial change in circumstances.
Custody cases case be very challenging, emotional and costly. Before you get embroiled in custody battle, think about what is best for your children and your own level of commitment to fight for custody.