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What Are Legal Custody And Final Decision-Making Authority In A Parenting Plan?


Georgia law recognizes two forms of custody: physical and legal. Physical custody governs which parent has the right to physically have the children with them at any given time. Legal custody, on the other hand, governs each parent’s access to information about the children and how major decisions affecting the children are made. This post focuses on legal custody and the elements of decision-making that are present in Georgia Parenting Plans.

Legal custody is awarded by the Court during child custody proceedings. Legal custody can be “sole”—meaning only one parent has rights and responsibilities regarding information about the child and major decisions concerning the child; or “joint”—meaning both parents have access to information and are involved in the decision-making process. See O.C.G.A. § 19-9-6. Joint legal custody is awarded to both parents in a vast majority of custody cases in Georgia.

In most joint legal custody situations, both parents have equal rights to access information related to the children. This includes information about school, medical records, mental health records, schedules, travel information, etc. A parenting plan that provides for joint legal custody generally serves as a release of that information to both joint legal custodian parents, and either parent can present such a parenting plan to an authority or institution holding information about their children to authorize a release of that information to that parent.

Relatedly, in joint legal custody situations, both parents have a right to be involved in major decisions affecting the children. Specifically, according to Georgia law, those major decisions pertain to the areas of education, non-emergency medical issues, extracurricular activities, and religious upbringing. Georgia parenting plans  will typically require that both parents consult and confer with each other in good faith regarding any major decision under these categories before making such a decision. The parties are expected to attempt to reach a mutual decision in the best interests of the child. However, in the event that they cannot reach a mutual decision, Georgia parenting plans will provide one of the two parents with final decision-making authority in each of these four areas.

  • Educational decisions typically relate to the selection of the children’s school, as well as related issues such as tutoring, individualized educational programs, educational testing, etc. Educational decision-making can be a critical component of parenting plans, because the party with this final decision-making authority can typically control where the children are enrolled in school, which can greatly impact other areas of custody, such as parenting time arrangements.
  • Non-emergency medical decisions relate to those medical decisions that are made on a non-emergency basis (while emergency decisions are typically made by the party with physical custody of the child at the time of emergency). This can include issues like elective medical procedures, orthodontia, mental health treatments, etc.
  • Extracurricular activity decisions are those pertaining to the enrollment of the children in extracurricular activities, such as sports, musical activities, private lessons, etc. Given the scheduling issues that extracurricular activities can present, this can be a significant issue in parenting plans.
  • Religious upbringing decisions are those that related to how the children are religiously raised. While many separated couples have similar religious beliefs, that is not always true. The party with final decision-making authority has final say over such issues as baptism, conversion, and related issues. However, most parenting plans will allow both parties to take the children to their choice of religious services during each party’s parenting time, regardless of which party has final decision-making authority.

If you have questions about how legal custody or final decision-making authority operate in Georgia, do not hesitate to contact the attorneys at Buckhead Family Law. We fully appreciate the significance that these issues play in the lives of your children, and we are ready to help you navigate these issues when disagreements arise between parents. Schedule a consultation today by calling at 470-600-6699.

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