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Understanding legal custody, physical custody and parenting plans

Georgia, like most other states, recognizes a difference between legal and physical custody. It's important to understand the terms before you make any custody agreements because Georgia's custody laws don't make it easy to alter the arrangements once they've been set.

Legal custody gives you the right to share in all of the major decisions that are made for your child, whether or not the child is physically living with you most of the time or not. That means that you have a say in what school the child attends, what medical care he or she receives, the church he or she attends and any other important issues.

It isn't uncommon for parents who share legal custody to also share physical custody fairly evenly -- but that isn't always the case. For example, if your occupation keeps you on the road a lot, you may have shared legal custody but liberal visitation rights instead of shared physical custody.

If you want to avoid being in a situation where the court determines the amount of say you have over your child's life (legal custody) and the amount of access you have to your child (physical custody or visitation), the best approach is to work with the other parent to craft a parenting plan that the court can approve.

While each parenting plan is unique, there are some basics that every parenting plan should cover:

-- A schedule that shows when the child will spend time with each parent, including holidays

-- An agreement about how transportation between residences should occur

-- Ways that a parent can stay in touch with the child (through nightly phone calls, email or social media, for example) when he or she is in the other parent's care

-- The right of each parent to make daily decisions (and emergency ones) while the child is in his or her physical custody

-- Anticipated changes to the agreement as your child's needs change, especially as he or she gets older.

That last item could be particularly important because it could give you a window to reopen the issue of custody more easily if a problem develops. Otherwise, you may have to wait until there is a change in circumstances big enough to affect your child's well-being before you can request a change in custody.

For more information on child custody issues, see an attorney today.

Source: State of Georgia, "Learning about Child Custody," accessed May 19, 2017

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