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CASE LAW UPDATE: Sheffield v. Sheffield

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Child Custody and Grandparents Rights

Can a parent share joint custody of their minor child with the child’s grandparent? The short answer is no.

The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a juvenile court’s order awarding joint legal custody of a child to the child’s mother and to the child’s grandmother.

In Georgia, there is a rebuttable presumption that it is in the child’s best interest to award custody to a biological parent. In order to overcome the rebuttable presumption, a third-parent relative, such as a grandparent, must show by clear and convincing evidence that awarding custody to the child’s parents would cause either physical harm OR significant long term emotional harm to the child.

When considering harm in this context, courts should consider the following:

  1. Who the child’s past and present caretakers are;
  2. With whom the child has formed bonds with and how strong those bonds are;
  3. Whether the parties have evidenced interest in, contact with, the child over time; and
  4. Whether the child has unique medical or psychological needs that one party is better able to meet.

In Sheffield, the juvenile court found by clear and convincing evidence that the child would suffer physical or emotional harm if custody were awarded to the mother. However, the juvenile court also found the mother to be a fit parent under Georgia law and awarded joint legal custody of the child to the mother and grandmother.

Under current Georgia law, joint custody arrangements are only allowed between parents; not between a parent and grandparent. Additionally, third parties, such as grandparents, can’t be awarded custody when the court finds one or both parents to be a fit parent and suitable custodian.

A third-party relative may be awarded sole legal custody of a child if the court finds that NO parent is suitable for custody.

Sheffield v. Sheffield, A16A1135 (9/21/2016)

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