The Court of Appeals of Georgia recently heard a case that reaffirms the long-standing principle that an appellate court is unlikely to overturn a trial court's custody determination when it was based upon the best interests of the child. In Wilson v. Wilson, the parties were divorced pursuant to a divorce decree that gave the mother primary physical custody of their only child and the father visitation. Wilson v. Wilson, A16A1312 (October 14, 2016). About a year after the divorce, the father had to get an order to enforce visitation and the mother filed a petition to modify custody and visitation.
In her petition, the mother made several allegations against the father, including that he was always looking at pornography and had psychologically abused the child, but did not produce any supporting evidence. The father countered that the mother was thwarting his relationship with the child. The court appointed a guardian ad litem ("GAL"), who recommended that the father have primary custody due to the mother's pattern of attempted parental alienation. The court also appointed a forensic psychiatrist who recommended that the child remain with the mother due to their strong emotional bond, but noted that there was "strong evidence" that the mother was disrupting the relationship between the father and child and that the father "was better equipped to provide an emotionally secure…home" for the child. The psychiatrist's report detailed several instances where the mother specifically attempted to thwart the father-child relationship.
The trial court considered the evidence presented by these two experts as well as the testimony of the parties themselves and found that "the mother had demonstrated a pattern of parental alienation against the father and had engaged in a pattern of obstruction against him." The court, therefore, awarded primary physical custody to the father.
The mother appealed, arguing that the court relied too heavily on the communication and parental alienation issues. The Court of Appeals of Georgia disagreed, citing long standing Georgia law which states that, in determining the best interests of a child in a custody case, the trial court "may consider any relevant factor including but not limited to" a list of seventeen enumerated factors, including "the willingness and ability of each of the parents to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent, consistent with the best interest of the child." O.C.G.A. § 19-9-3(a)(3)(N).Thus, evidence regarding this issue was appropriately considered and the Court of Appeals of Georgia found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding custody to the father. When the record shows that the trial court considered the evidence in determining the child's best interest, as it does here, its decision is not likely to be overturned.