Answer: The court looks to over 15 factors in any custody evaluation, and that includes the relationship already established with the child, the love and affection and bonding between the children, and the ability of the parties to meet the needs of the children specifically. Custody is a factor, not just in divorce cases, but in legitimation and modification cases, in cases where there may be special changes and circumstances that justify a change in the custody arrangement as it stands.
In Georgia, there’s legal custody and there’s physical custody, and there’s a distinction. In a lot of cases, parties may share joint legal custody, but one party or another may be given primary physical custody of the children. That is, day-to-day custody and control and ability to make day-to-day decisions for the needs of the children and react quickly to those needs and make executive decisions. There’s a duty to consult, but there’s great latitude in making those decisions when one party has primary physical custody.
The court considers the totality of the needs of the children and the totality of the abilities of either party to care for the children and meet their needs. The court is going to make a decision based upon the best interest of the child, always. The court will weigh all of the factors and make a decision about the capacity of the parties to provide for the children, not just financially, but emotionally, academically, and meet those needs on a day-to-day basis.
Parties, particularly where they’ve reached an agreement on terms, may want to set up an arrangement where they have joint physical custody. Courts are often wary of joint physical custody because it requires a level of cooperation to make decisions that some parties are incapable of, and the court is more willing to adopt a joint physical custody arrangement when the parties have sat down in a collaborative law effort and come up with a parenting plan that is specifically tailored to the needs of the child. They’re also much more likely to entertain the entry of an order with joint physical custody. In those situations where one party or another, they’ve agreed to stay inside of one school district or one particular area so as not to have geographic limitations or restrictions making the plan impracticable.