More and more children depend upon grandparents and other family members for their care. Sometimes, the caregiver
is a stepparent or a trusted friend of the family. The legal status of a stepparent or other adult caring for a child that is not biologically their own can be uncertain at in states that have not enacted legislation recognizing the important role non-parent caregivers play in modern society. The recent enactment in Georgia of O.C.G.A. §19-7-3.1, commonly referred to as the Equitable Caregiver Act, grants legal recognition to the important role played by adults who may not share a familial relationship with a child for whom they provide care and support.
Establishing parental rights in Georgia
Grandparents, great-grandparents and siblings of a child have had the right granted
to them by law in Georgia to petition a court for visitation rights, but the right was not extended to other family members or to stepparents. The state took care of that omission in July, 2019 when it approved the Equitable Caregiver Act
that became effective on July 1, 2019.
In a state that requires its judges tasked with deciding custody disputes to strive to achieve an outcome that promotes the welfare, happiness and overall best interest of the child, allowing a child to be removed from a caregiver solely because of a lack of a familial relationship never made sense. The Equitable Caregiver Act expands upon the ability of state judges to ensure that a child’s best interest remains the deciding factor when custody issues arise.
How the law fosters the best interest of a child
The new law does not infringe upon the rights of parents who have not separated and continue to reside with the child. Under those circumstances, parents may consent to granting equitable caregiver status to another person, but it cannot be forced upon them.
Any fear that strangers without an established relationship with a child may use the law have been eliminated by the criteria a petitioner must meet in order to be granted rights as an equitable caregiver. Judges asked to approve someone as an equitable caregiver must be shown that the person has proven the following:
Establishment of a full and complete parental role in the life of the child that is unequivocal, committed and permanent.
The petitioner has consistently provided care for the child.
The proposed caregiver fully and permanently accepted parental responsibilities without expectation of financial compensation.
The existence of a bond between the proposed equitable caregiver and the child that has been fostered or supported by one or both of the parents of the child. The petitioner and the parent or parents must acknowledge and accept that the person requesting to be declared the equitable caregiver has behaved in a manner consistent with a parental role.
Before a court may approve a request to grant parental rights to an equitable caregiver, the evidence presented in support of it must prove that severing the relationship will cause the child to suffer physical or long-term emotional harm and the best interest of the child would be served by continuing the relationship. Some of the factors courts must take into consideration in weighing the harm that may be caused by termination of a person’s relationship with a child include the following:
Current and past caregivers.
Psychological bonds the child may have formed and the strength of the bonds.
The identity of other parties expressing an interest in or contact with the child.
Medical or psychological needs of the child that may best be met by a particular party.
The new law contains language making it clear that an order granting parental rights to an equitable caregiver does not extinguish the rights of other parents of the child.
Consulting with an Atlanta family law attorney
Until passage of the Equitable Caregiver Act, a divorce or the end of a romantic relationship may have left a person powerless to continue the close relationship established with the other party’s child. The new law gives stepparents and other adults who have bonded with a child and wish to continue the relationship the opportunity to use the courts to do so by establishing parental rights.
It may be too soon to tell how courts will address issues that can arise in cases brought under the new law, such as a request for custody of a child by an unrelated equitable caregiver over the objections of a biological parent. Obtaining legal advice and representation from an experienced Atlanta family law attorney should be the first step for anyone involved in a custody or visitation case under the Equitable Caregiver Act.