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Georgia Case Law Update – Bell v. Taylor

After hearing the Brawner v. Miller case regarding a custody dispute between a grandparent and a biological parent (see previous blog), the Court of Appeals of Georgia recently heard another case on this same issue. Bell v. Taylor, A15A1621 (2015). However, unlike the Brawner case where the Court affirmed the trial court’s award of custody to the grandfather, the Bell case offers an example of an award of custody to a grandparent being reversed. In Bell, the child was born to unmarried parents. The parents were young and the father (“Bell”), in particular, had a problem with drugs and alcohol. They, therefore, consented to the maternal grandmother (“Taylor”) being the temporary guardian when the child was a few years old. A couple of years later, Bell straightened his life out and filed a petition seeking legitimation and custody of the child.

At the hearing, several witnesses testified that Bell had been clean and sober for the past two years, that he had become a responsible worker, and provided a stable home for his new wife and stepchildren. Witnesses who spoke on behalf of Taylor testified that the child was “happy and doing great” with Taylor, and that the child was “loving” and “well taken care of” by Taylor. At the hearing, the Judge even “remarked that he could decide the case either way and would sleep well at night because he felt both parties would take good care of” the child.  Ultimately, however, the Judge awarded custody to Taylor “[b]ecause of the bond between [the child] and his grandmother and due to the fact that her home has been his residence for an overwhelming majority of his life, it would be harmful to [the child] for him to be removed from that home.”

Bell appealed, contending that there was no evidence of physical or significant, long-term psychological harm that is required under Georgia law for a third party to win custody from a biological parent. Id., citing Clark v. Wade, 273 Ga 587, 598 (2001). The Court of Appeals of Georgia agreed with Bell, pointing out that “[a] change in home or school will often be difficult for a child, but some level of stress and discomfort may be warranted when the goal is reunification of the child with the parent.” Id. In this case, the “harm” noted by the trial court falls within the acceptable level of stress and discomfort that may result from reunification of a child with a parent after an extended time. As such, the custody award was reversed, with the trial court ordered to enter a custody award in favor of Taylor.

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