Divorce actions are personal by nature. If a couple has minor children, custody and support matters can sometimes devolve into competitive battles between parents, with little or no regard for the well-being of a child. For that reason, Georgia law requires judges to place the interests of the parents second to the needs of the child in deciding any child-related issues during a divorce.
Parenting plans are required as part of every divorce involving minor children in Georgia. A parenting plan indicates which parent will have the authority to make major decisions for the child, known as legal custody, as well as a schedule showing when each parent will have overnights with the child, referred to as physical custody. If the parties can agree, they may submit a joint parenting plan. If the parties disagree, each spouse will submit their own plan and the court will decide to either award sole physical or legal custody to one parent or establish a shared arrangement.
Judges in Georgia must make sure that any custody arrangement proposed by the parents furthers the child's best interest. Although the court does not give preference to either parent based on gender, a judge will consider which parent has been most involved in the child's life, the relationship the child has to each parent, and both parent's proximity to the child's school and other activities. Further, if the child is at least 14 years old, he can choose which parent to live with, unless the court finds that the arrangement would not be in the child's best interest, which might be the case if the preferred parent has a history of domestic violence.
If a parent is awarded sole physical custody of the child, the other parent, referred to as the non-custodial parent, often pays child support. The first step in calculating support is to combine the incomes of both parents. This total then corresponds to a base support obligation supplied by the state. The non-custodial parent is responsible for a percentage of that number, in the same ratio of his income to the parents' combined incomes. For example, if the parents have $5,000 in total monthly income and the non-custodial parent contributes $4,000, the non-custodial parent would be responsible for four-fifths of the base support obligation. After the calculation is run, the amount may be increased to cover extraordinary child-related expenses or decreased if the non-custodial parent has a certain number of overnights with the child.
Both child custody and support orders may be modified in Georgia if circumstances change. To modify custody, either spouse must demonstrate that the change has resulted in the current arrangement being no longer in the child's best interest. An example would be if a parent is working more or the child's school performance has dropped considerably. Other practical reasons, such as a parent moving, can be grounds to modify custody. Changes that warrant a child support modification may include a parent losing a job, being promoted or becoming unable to work due to disability or illness.
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