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Defining 'Joint Legal Custody' In Georgia Parenting Plans

When parents who are facing divorce, modification, legitimation or other parental rights action in Georgia seek to draft and submit a parenting plan, the most common custodial arrangement by far in Georgia is when parents share "joint legal custody" with one parent designated as the primary physical custodian with whom the children live the majority of the time.

When developing a parenting plan in Georgia, however, it is important for parents to know that the term 'joint legal custody' is actually very vague and uninformative in guiding parents in the context of real-time parenting. As such, it is crucial for parents to recognize that instead of simply stating in the parenting plan that parents will share 'joint legal custody,' the parenting plan contain more detailed and expansive statements on the meaning and scope of joint legal custody.

'Legal custody' encompasses an entirely different realm of parenting issues than does 'physical custody.' While physical custody generally refers to the quantity of time a parent actually spends with his or her children, legal custody is a measure of a parent's rights and responsibilities, most notably with regard to involvement in decision-making. Section 19-9-6 of the Georgia Code states as follows:

"Joint legal custody" means both parents have equal rights and responsibilities for major decisions concerning the child, including the child's education, health care, extracurricular activities, and religious training; provided, however, that the judge may designate one parent to have sole power to make certain decisions while both parents retain equal rights and responsibilities for other decisions.

Although the core function of 'joint legal custody,' according to Georgia law, is to ensure that both parents participate in certain major decisions to be made in a child's life (with the caveat the one parent will be final decision-maker on any such major issue), there is no additional law that goes on to specify exactly how these major decisions are shared before someone resorts to casting a tie-breaking vote. Therefore, it is essential in any parenting plan to further define the nature of joint decision-making to involve the exercise of good-faith efforts of both parents not only to keep the other parent informed of major child-related issues, but also to discuss any decisions on such issues with a genuine aim to reach agreement on a decision in a manner consistent with the child's best interests.

When it comes to further defining the scope of parental rights and responsibilities as joint legal custodians, however, why stop there? Parenting plans present the perfect opportunity to create a more detailed and expansive definition of "joint legal custody'. In other words, parents are free to supplement the broad 'equal rights and responsibilities' definition of 'joint legal custody' with their own set of mutual rights and responsibilities that will govern the way parents will raise a child within two separate households.

Parents can use the concept of joint legal custody to include clauses in a parenting plan that touch on a variety of important issues that parents may face in raising children within two separate households. Clauses on non-disparagement of parents, alienation, consistent discipline in two households, homework folders, scheduling flexibility, nutrition and diet, third-party transportation, non-smoking, use of alcohol or prescription drugs, boyfriends/girlfriends spending the night (a.k.a. 'morals clause'), extent of telephone, email or text contact both between parents themselves as well as parent and child, drug testing, passport cooperation, extracurricular scheduling, etc.

Put differently, since joint legal custody essentially means a broad, but formal, recognition of equal rights and responsibilities between parents, the careful and attentive parent should seek to spell out in the parenting plan the specific terms of this formalized co-parenting in order to put some real meat on the bone of the 'equal rights and responsibilities' notion.

Creating a detailed, customized, workable and reasonable parenting plan is one of the most important things that any lawyer can do for a client. Hiring an experienced family lawyer to represent him or her in any action involving parental rights action is one of the smartest things any client can do. With almost 20 years of experience as a successful, client-oriented lawyer handling custody and parenting cases in and around Gwinnett County and metro Atlanta, Douglas N. Fox of Fox Firm, P.C. remains committed to serving (and keeping) satisfied clients.

Call us at (770) 277-4883 or email us at if you are interested in hiring an attorney with the knowledge and will to produce the right result in your custody case and to help design a fair and just parenting plan.

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