For those who are contemplating divorce and have children, questions often arise regarding the term “joint custody.” Specifically, divorcing parents wonder what exactly does the term “joint custody” mean. They also wonder if the award of joint custody means no child support will be ordered.
In Georgia, there are two types of custody: legal custody and physical custody. The term “joint custody” can refer to either joint legal custody, joint physical custody, or both. Therefore, it’s important to note which type of custody one is referring to when discussing joint custody generally.
Legal custody refers to the rights and responsibilities for major decisions regarding a child’s welfare in all areas of his/her life, including education, health, extracurricular activities, and religion. In Georgia, it is common for courts to award joint legal custody, meaning decision-making is shared, with one parent being the final decision-maker for one or more categories. For example, the court may award joint legal custody with the father having final decision-making authority in the areas of extracurricular activities and religion and the mother having final decision-making authority in the areas of education and health. Even if a parent has final decision-making authority for one facet of the child’s life, joint legal custody requires that parent to still confer with the other parent when making a decision.
Physical custody refers to who the child lives with. Joint physical custody means substantially equal time and contact with both parents. Georgia courts are not required to award joint physical custody unless it is in the best interests of the child, even if both parents are found to be equally fit. In most cases, courts award primary physical custody to one parent (meaning the child resides with that parent a majority of the time) and make the other parent the secondary physical custodian. In selecting the primary physical custodian, courts consider several factors, such as which parent was the child’s primary caregiver during the marriage.
The question often arises of whether an award of joint physical custody means there will be no child support ordered. Under Georgia law, an award of joint physical custody does not mean that child support will not be ordered. Even in cases where joint physical custody is awarded, the Georgia Child Support Guidelines still apply and it may be possible that one parent will have to pay child support.