What you should know about Georgia paternity and family law
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Georgia Family Law Terms
For unmarried couples and single parents in Georgia, paternity laws and parents' rights aren't always easy to understand. For starters, establishing paternity through voluntary acknowledgement or even a DNA test in Georgia does not grant a biological father any rights, visitation or custody. This must be done through another process called legitimation. It is difficult to find information concerning the process, which can be frustrating for both the mother and the father. As one who has recently dealt with the issues surrounding a "child born out of wedlock" and is still sorting through the mess, I know how ugly and complicated this situation can be even for those who have the best of intentions.
To help others who want to understand Georgia paternity, legitimation, and family law in general, I have comprised a list of pertinent terms every parent who is single, divorced, or separated in Georgia should know before going into the any of the legal processes. This is not an exhaustive list, and I am not a lawyer so I cannot offer any legal advise. The regulations surrounding family law and related issues can change at any time, so you should confirm the accuracy of all information found here with your lawyer, child support counselor, or other persons capable of facilitating the services, petitions, and processes you require.
adoption - A process which involves voluntary relinquishment of a child by the natural parents to another adult or adults who will take on all the legal responsibilities and rights of parenting. Adoption can be done by relatives or non-relatives.
auto draft - A child support payment option in which the amount is automatically withdrawn from the NCP's bank account or withheld from their paycheck every month and either sent as a check or deposited into the custodial parent's account. This is the recommended method as it is the easiest way to enforce and track payments.
causes for termination of parental rights - neglect, physical/sexual abuse, drug or alcohol related incapacity, best interest of the child, failure to pay child support, inadequate effort to maintain contact, record of abuse/molestation of another child, record of neglect of another child, found guilty in the death of another child
child born out of wedlock - A child who is born to parents who were never married and have no intention to marry. By default, mothers gain exclusive rights to children born out of wedlock and thereby have sole custody and sole power of attorney to make all parenting decisions for the child.
child support - Monies that one parent is required by law to pay another to assist in the care of their children. Usually this is paid by an NCP, but in shared custody cases can be paid by the parent with the least custody and/or highest income. Amount of child support is determined by the gross annual income and is nontaxable. Before an amount is set during a child support hearing, the NCP may show a desire and good will to pay child support by assisting with the child's household expenses including, food, utilities, rent/mortgage, insurance, travel and automobile related expenses for exemplary needs, extra curricular activities, clothing, school supplies, child care, tuition, etc. A demonstrated willingness to pay child support usually results in a more generous visitation or custody arrangement by the judge.
custodial parent - Parent with whom the child(ren) lives and who is responsible for their care and wellbeing.
custody - Custodial responsibilities of an adult for a minor child. Custodial parents are responsible for providing basic needs, living arrangements, and making decisions for minor children. Custody may be exclusive or shared (see sole custody, joint custody, legal custody, physical custody).
establishing paternity - Paternity may be established by DNA testing or a voluntary acknowledgement form at the hospital. Signing the birth certificate alone does not establish paternity. Establishing paternity does not guarantee the father of an illegitimate child any rights, but it does verify who is responsible for child support payments. Completing the voluntary acknowledgement form at the hospital is a form of legitimation, but a court hearing must still be scheduled to establish a visitation schedule and custody arrangement if the mother and father cannot reach an agreement.
filing for child support - A claim may be filed by the custodial parent, non-custodial parent, or by someone acting on behalf of one of the parents. Claims are usually handled by the Office of Child Support Services (OCSS) or the Department of Family and Children Services (DCFS). Depending on how quickly the claim is filed and how complete the non-custodial parent information is, it can take two months to over a year to schedule a hearing and begin receiving payments.
guardianship - Transfer to parental rights to adults other than the parents. Legal guardians may be court appointed for wards of the state or chosen by the natural parents. Legal guardians do not have to be relatives.
illegitimate child - see child born out of wedlock
joint custody - A shared custody arrangement in which both parents have a minimum time allotment of at least 35% for the care of their child(ren). In order for joint custody to be approved, the court usually requires a one year plan that shows where the child(ren) will be every day. The court reserves the right to deny a petition for joint custody if the arrangements are too disruptive to the child's routine. The parent who spends the least time may still be responsible for child support especially if their income greatly exceeds the income of the primary household. Even with 50/50 joint custody, a parent with significantly higher income may be required to pay child support. In joint custody agreements, the parents may take turns claiming the children as dependents for tax purposes.
jurisdiction - Location in which certain legal proceedings must be filed or take place. Some legal actions have very specific jurisdiction and others are more flexible. For instance, a child support case must be overseen in the father's county of residence but a petition to legitimate may be filed in the father, mother, or child's county of residence.
legal custody - The right to be included in parenting decisions (including medical, religious, financial, etc.) for the child and to have access to the child's personal records such as school and medical information.
legal father - A natural father who has successfully completed the process of establishing paternity and gaining parental rights. If the natural mother and father were ever married during or after the conception of the child, the father is considered a legal father even if they were no longer married at the time of birth.
legitimation - The process by which a father may gain legal rights to a child born out of wedlock, including the rights to exercise visitation, petition for custody, and inherit from each other. Not all states have a legitimation process.
natural parent - Biological parents of a child. For a child born out of wedlock, natural fathers have little to no rights by default.
non-custodial parent (NCP) - parent the child does not primarily live with
opportunity interest - A constitutionally protected relationship between unmarried fathers and their children. It is the opportunity to show a desire to parent as well as meet legal and financial obligations. Positive use of an opportunity interest includes paying child support, especially above and beyond the child's minimum requirements, regular visits, phone calls, letters and other means of correspondence, sending birthday and holiday cards, and giving gifts. If the opportunity interest is not exercised, it may be lost. If lost, it is harder to successfully legitimate a child and may result in termination of parental rights.
paternity - Having rights and responsibilities as a biological father. Paternity may be established by DNA testing or voluntary acknowledgement. Check your state's laws for acceptable types of voluntary acknowledgement and to find out if DNA testing is required to establish legal paternity. Paternity establishes who is responsible for child support payments but does not guarantee visitation or custody.
petition to legitimate - a suit filed against the mother of a child born out of wedlock for the right to establish all paternal rights including the exercising of visitation, ability to gain custody, power to make parental decisions, etc.
physical custody - Custody involving the child's living arrangements.
power of attorney (POA) - The legal authority to make decisions on the behalf of a minor child. This includes consent for health and medical procedures, ability to manage the child's finances, and power to enter legal contracts for the child. It is possible to give partial power of attorney such as health POA to a family member in the event of planned long term absences like military deployment or a travel-intensive work schedule.
relinquishment - The voluntary waiving of parental rights which precedes adoption. Depending on the state, natural parents have anywhere from 3 months to a year to withdraw their decision to relinquish and nullify the adoption.
shared custody - A custody arrangement in which the parent of the secondary residence has a minimum amount of time guaranteed for their children to spend in their home ranging from 0-50% of the year.
sole custody - An exclusive custody arrangement in which the child(ren) live with one custodial parent. The other parent may or may not have visitation rights.
standard visitation - The default visitation arrangement in which the NCP may visit every other weekend usually from 6 PM on Friday to 6 PM on Sunday. The NCP also gets every other holiday with standard visitation.
termination of parental rights - The voluntary or involuntary dissolving of the rights of one or both parents. One parent may petition against another or the state may file a petition against both parents in cases of extreme neglect. Termination is permanent and may only be regained in very unusual circumstances.