What You Need to Know About Child Custody
Breaking up is hard enough for couples, but the relationship you don’t want to upend in a divorce is with your children. Your future with your kids begins with the child custody arrangement, and it’s important to approach it with flexibility and a genuine commitment to place the needs of the children first. If you and your ex-spouse can see eye to eye on only one thing, make it the custody arrangements for your children.
In Georgia, parents usually share legal custody of children, which means both participate in major decisions – think medical issues and education – that affect the children. Traditionally, one parent was awarded primary physical custody, while the other parent has visitation rights. As social norms continue to change, however, courts are more and more frequently awarding joint physical custody, providing both parents with equal time with the children.
One Size Does Not Fit All in Child Custody Cases
Just as parenting does not have a single template, neither do custody arrangements. Children, especially if they are younger, will feel uneasy if arrangements are too fluid, and the court will encourage you to bring as much detail as possible to the custody agreement.
Kids are different in how they respond to their parents’ split and parents also must consider their work, travel, new personal relationships, the strength of their finances and how they like to spend their weekends, summers, and holidays.
In the sprawling Atlanta area, where you live is going to be a factor in custody arrangements. Drive times may make it impractical for parents to trade off picking up kids from school each day or relying on each other as a backup for unexpected medical appointments or school meetings. All this will factor into how they create a framework for custody that builds the best relationship with a child.
Some issues are inherently delicate. For example, custody agreements may require the custodial parent to remain in the same geographic area as the other parent. New relationships are another area of contention and an agreement may stipulate that a new boyfriend or girlfriend cannot stay overnight when the child is in the home. However, morality clauses—as these provisions are known—are difficult to enforce.
While parents cannot foresee every contingency, this is where an experienced legal advisor can help you anticipate surprises down the road. With an experienced legal advisor, custody arrangements (or “parenting plans”) can be used to come to creative solutions for every family’s unique needs.
It’s All About the Best Interests of the Child
The law requires a judge to make custody decisions based on what is best for the child, and that often is a tough balancing act.
Best interests are spelled out in statute, and some are obvious: the ability of a parent to provide basic needs such as shelter, emotional relationships with siblings, the child’s need to feel secure and safe, ties to the community and friends, disruption to the child’s life, and the mental and physical health of everyone involved.
There is a lot of subjectivity in weighing these factors but any evidence of family violence, substance abuse or criminal history will count heavily against a parent. At 14, a child can choose which parent to stay with, although a judge may overrule the child’s choice based on the court’s view of what is in the child’s best interest.
No surprise, couples that cannot bear to live with each other any longer may not agree on custody arrangements.
The first step in avoiding future conflict is to be as specific as possible in writing the custody agreement. For example, do not say a child will split holidays between parents. Be specific – where will the child spend July 4 and Thanksgiving every year until they are 18? A detailed custody agreement should be the starting point in order to avoid misunderstandings. As with any contract, what is left out may be as important as what is included.
Judges don’t like to get involved in petty conflicts over custody, especially if they think the child is being used to even an old score from the marriage. We encourage our clients to go to court over conflicts only as a last resort. Part of your new parenting role, and part of building a healthy co-parenting relationship with your ex-spouse, is you have to learn to work these things out as two mature adults.
Lean Heavily on Your Lawyer’s Child Custody Experience
An experienced family law attorney has seen hundreds of custody agreements and they know what works and what does not. They also have seen parents make decisions in the midst of a divorce that were fueled more by emotion than a reasoned view of what will be best for their children going forward.
Lean heavily on them for their advice in this crucial part of the divorce process and you are more likely to come together on a custody arrangement that serves both you and your children in this new chapter of your life.