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Georgia Case Law Update – Oxford v. Fuller

As has been mentioned in many blogs, in determining custody in Georgia, the court must consider the best interests of the children at issue. Further, in reviewing a custody determination on appeal, the appellate courts of this state give great deference to a trial court’s ruling and “will not interfere unless the evidence shows a clear abuse of discretion, and were there is any evidence to support the trial court’s finding, we will not find there was an abuse of discretion.” Bankston v. Warbington, 332 Ga. App. 29 (771 SE2d 726) (2015). 

The Court of Appeals of Georgia recently followed this standard in reversing a trial court’s custody decision. Oxford v. Fuller, A16A1056 (2016). In Oxford v. Fuller, the parties shared joint legal and physical custody of their three children after their divorce. After the mother moved to a different county in Georgia for a more lucrative job, she filed a petition for modification of custody. The father filed a petition for custody modification in response. After hearing evidence, including testimony from two of the children and two guardians ad litem, the trial court entered an order alternating primary decision making authority and physical custody between the parents on a yearly basis. This order went against the recommendations of the guardians ad litem and was made over the mother’s concerns that the children would have to change schools every year.

The mother appealed, alleging that the trial court erred for two reasons: (1) the custody order is self-executing without determining whether the change is in the children’s best interest and (2) there was no evidence the terms of the order are in the best interests of the children. The Court of Appeals of Georgia agreed on both counts. As to the self-executing change of custody provision, the Court held that while Georgia law does not prohibit such a change, it still must account for the best interests of the children. In this case, the change between parents was automatic on a yearly basis and did not even consider whether the change would be in the best interests of the children at the time the change would occur. The Court further held that the order was not in the best interests of the children because it would “require the children to change schools, homes, school friends, and extracurricular activities every year.” Nether guardian ad litem recommended a custody change such as this and there was no other evidence indicating that these changes would be in the children’s best interest. Accordingly, this order was reversed and remanded back to the trial court to come up with an order that is supported by evidence and found to be in the best interests of the children at issue.

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