Does a Child Have the Right to Elect the Parent they want to live With?
By: Candace M. Williams
Coleman, Chambers & Rogers, LLP
Pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 19-9-3, (5)-(6), in all custody cases in which the child has reached the age of 14 years, the child shall have the right to select the parent with whom he or she desires to live. The child’s selection for purposes of custody shall be presumptive unless the parent so selected is determined not to be in the best interests of the child. The parental selection by a child who has reached the age of 14 may, in and of itself, constitutes a material change of condition or circumstance in any action seeking a modification or change in the custody of that child; provided, however, that such selection may only be made once within a period of two years from the date of the previous selection and the best interests of the child standard shall apply.
(6) In all custody cases in which the child has reached the age of 11 but not 14 years, the judge shall consider the desires and educational needs of the child in determining which parent shall have custody. The judge shall have complete discretion in making this determination, and the child’s desires shall not be controlling. The judge shall further have broad discretion as to how the child’s desires are to be considered, including through the report of a guardian ad litem. The best interests of the child standard shall be controlling. The parental selection of a child who has reached the age of 11 but not 14 years shall not, in and of itself, constitute a material change of condition or circumstance in any action seeking a modification or change in the custody of that child. The judge may issue an order granting temporary custody to the selected parent for a trial period not to exceed six months regarding the custody of a child who has reached the age of 11 but not 14 years where the judge hearing the case determines such a temporary order is appropriate.
What is the best interest test? The Court follows the following criteria in determining what is in a child’s best interest.
(A) The love, affection, bonding, and emotional ties existing between each parent and the child;
(B) The love, affection, bonding, and emotional ties existing between the child and his or her siblings, half siblings, and stepsiblings and the residence of such other children;
(C) The capacity and disposition of each parent to give the child love, affection, and guidance and to continue the education and rearing of the child;
(D) Each parent’s knowledge and familiarity of the child and the child’s needs;
(E) The capacity and disposition of each parent to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care, day-to-day needs, and other necessary basic care, with consideration made for the potential payment of child support by the other parent;
(F) The home environment of each parent considering the promotion of nurturance and safety of the child rather than superficial or material factors;
(G) The importance of continuity in the child’s life and the length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity;
(H) The stability of the family unit of each of the parents and the presence or absence of each parent’s support systems within the community to benefit the child;
(I) The mental and physical health of each parent;
(J) Each parent’s involvement, or lack thereof, in the child’s educational, social, and extracurricular activities;
(K) Each parent’s employment schedule and the related flexibility or limitations, if any, of a parent to care for the child;
(L) The home, school, and community record and history of the child, as well as any health or educational special needs of the child;
(M) Each parent’s past performance and relative abilities for future performance of parenting responsibilities;
(N) The willingness and ability of each of the parents to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent, consistent with the best interest of the child;
(O) Any recommendation by a court appointed custody evaluator or guardian ad litem;
(P) Any evidence of family violence or sexual, mental, or physical child abuse or criminal history of either parent; and
(Q) Any evidence of substance abuse by either parent.
(4) In addition to other factors that a judge may consider in a proceeding in which the custody of a child or visitation or parenting time by a parent is at issue and in which the judge has made a finding of family violence:
(A) The judge shall consider as primary the safety and well-being of the child and of the parent who is the victim of family violence;
(B) The judge shall consider the perpetrator’s history of causing physical harm, bodily injury, assault, or causing reasonable fear of physical harm, bodily injury, or assault to another person;
(C) If a parent is absent or relocates because of an act of domestic violence by the other parent, such absence or relocation for a reasonable period of time in the circumstances shall not be deemed an abandonment of the child for the purposes of custody determination; and
(D) The judge shall not refuse to consider relevant or otherwise admissible evidence of acts of family violence merely because there has been no previous finding of family violence. The judge may, in addition to other appropriate actions, order supervised visitation or parenting time pursuant to Code Section 19-9-7.
Generally, an election case is presented after a divorce or Legitimation has been in effect for several years, and the child reaches age fourteen (14) and chooses to live with the other parent. A party seeking to file an election action would proceed by filing a Petition for Modification of Custody Based on Minor Child’s Election. The child is required to sign an Election Affidavit under oath, which is attached to the Petition. Then, your counsel files the Petition, and proceeds with service. In the bulk of our cases, the Election decision is not contested by the other parent. However, there are few cases that become contested and proceed to trial. The child may be asked to appear in Court to provide testimony to the Court about his or her election. We prefer children be protected as much as possible from the adult nature of the courtroom environment. If the child is asked to go to Court, then we almost always request he or she be interviewed in the judge’s chambers. These contested cases can be highly emotional, expensive, and time consuming. The parent objecting to the election must present a substantial amount of evidence showing the Court the election is contrary to the child’s best interest. Prior to the revised election statute January 1, 2008, the standard was unfitness, which was almost impossible to prove. 99.9% of the time, the Court honored the child’s election under the prior statute. Now, the new standard provides a true best interest test to the Court in order to determine whether the decision is best for the child in question.