My friend Randy Kessler authored the following article for the Fulton County Daily Report about the  Shared Parenting bill (HB 369) pending in the Georgia General Assembly:

More changes coming to family law
Tell your representative how you feel about the potential adjustments to the custody statute

A NEW CUSTODY BILL, which dramatically changes the custody statute currently in effect, is being considered by the Georgia Legislature. The Georgia Bar and the citizens of Georgia are just now digesting the earlier changes to the child support guidelines and they soon will be faced with adjustments to the custody statute. Some highlights under the new bill include the following:

• Direct appeals for judgments in custody actions. For well over 10 years, custody cases were discretionary and the appellate courts could decline to hear them. Under the new bill, these cases may be taken directly to the Georgia Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.

• A parenting plan must be submitted for all cases in which custody is at issue between the parents. The new bill will require each parent to prepare and submit a parenting plan, or the parties may jointly submit a parenting plan that would be incorporated into any final decree.

Nine specific provisions must be outlined in the plan, including: 1) physical custody schedule; 2) parenting time schedule for holidays, birthdays, vacations and special occasions; 3) transportation arrangements; 4) whether supervised custody is needed and the particulars of supervision if necessary; 5) recognition of the child’s needs as the child grows and matures and an effort to develop a plan that considers this in an attempt to minimize future modifications; 6) allocation of decision-making authority for education, health, extracurricular activities and religious upbringing, and a resolution in the event the parents disagree; 7) recognition that parent with physical custody may make day-to-day decisions and emergency decisions for the child; 8) recognition that a close and continuing parent-child relationship and continuity in child’s life may be in child’s best interest; and 9) any limitations in terms of the other parent contacting the child while in the physical custody of the other parent, and the other parent’s right to access to information pertaining to the child.

• Parents may agree to binding arbitration on child custody and matters relating to visitation and a parenting plan. The bill does not include a description of a qualified “arbitrator.”

• A list of specific factors the judge may consider in determining the best interests of the child. The bill provides that the “judge may consider any relevant factor” in determining the best interests of the child, and it further outlines 16 factors that the judge can consider.

• The right of a 14-year-old to choose which parent to live with is eliminated. The bill provides that in all custody cases, when a child reaches 11 years of age, the judge shall consider the desires and educational needs of the child in determining which parent shall have custody. Furthermore, under the bill, the judge will have complete discretion in making the determination, and the child’s desires shall not be controlling.

The desires of a child, even one who has attained the age of 11, will not constitute a material change of conditions or circumstances in any action seeking a modification or change in the custody of that child.

• The judge may order reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses of litigation, experts, and guardian ad litem fees, as well as other court costs, in the child custody action. Unlike divorce or support cases, under this bill it will be the first time that attorney’s fees may be awarded in custody cases.

This is one bill all family law practitioners should pay close attention to. And just as with the child support guidelines, if we have an opinion, let’s make it known. Let your legislator know how you feel about these new potential rules and how they will play out in your real cases.

SOURCE: Fulton County Daily Report (subscription required)