Does a child’s caregiver have the right to ask for custody if they are not closely related to the child?

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Many people have heard of the Georgia Grandparent’s Rights Statute, which has enabled grandparents to ask the Courts for custody of and/or visitation rights to their grandchildren in certain circumstances. That was eventually broadened to allow similar rights to close relatives, such as aunts, uncles, older siblings, etc. But what about non-relatives, such as stepparents or unmarried long term and/or same sex partners or close friends of the family, who have historically been the caregivers for children?

When a child’s parents are no longer together (such as separated, divorced, or never married), and a child is no longer living with both parents, the Courts may ultimately get involved to determine who will have the right to make decisions for the child (“legal custody”), where a child will live (“physical custody”), and the rights of each parent to have time with that child (“parenting time” or “visitation”).

Until recently, the Courts were more limited as to who they could even consider awarding any custodial rights to. For example, if a child lived primarily with a parent and stepparent, and then that parent became unavailable (such as deceased, deployed out of the U.S., or incarcerated), the stepparent did not even have standing to ask the Courts for custodial rights to that child regardless of how much of an integral role that person played in the child’s life.

However, as of July 1, 2019, Georgia now has an Equitable Caregiver Statute, which now gives the Courts the right to designate a person as an Equitable Caregiver, if they can show that they have:

(1) undertaken a permanent, committed parental role in the child’s life;

(2) provided consistent caretaking of the child;

(3) established a bonded relationship with the child that was fostered and/or supported by a parent of the child; and

(4) that person has provided such full care to and responsibility for the child without expectation of any financial compensation for doing so.

If a person can satisfy these requirements, then they must show the Court that:

  1. the child would suffer harm (physical and/or emotional) if that relationship between the child and the caregiver is not allowed to continue, and
  2. that maintaining that relationship is in the child’s best interest.

A parent of the child may consent to having such person be deemed an Equitable Caregiver.

Once a person is designated as an Equitable Caregiver, then s/he can ask the Courts for legal rights to the child like the rights typically afforded to parents – custody and/or parenting time. This long overdue law now opens the door for those who love and care for children to remain in their lives even if they do not fit within one of the previously-required familial categories.

[See O.C.G.A. §19-7-3.1]

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