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A Word from Scott Shaw: Can Step-Parents or Non-Relatives Get Custody of Children in Their Lives?

Back in 2016, I wrote a blog post where the answer to the question of whether a person could get custody or have visitation rights with step-children or unrelated children they cared for was no. It didn’t matter if they were the children of a girlfriend, boyfriend, or neighbor, it was not permitted under Georgia law. Either parental rights were terminated and adoption was initiated or a person in this situation was out of luck.  

But, as happens often, the law has changed. 

The Georgia legislature addressed, at least partially, the problems this created by passing an act in 2020. It’s called the Equitable Caregivers Act. It provides a roadmap for a step-parent, gay or lesbian partner, or other caregiver in a child’s life who is not related by blood, to have standing to file for and be awarded custody or visitation rights with the child.

What Rights to Custody or Visitation do Step-Parents, Gay or Lesbian Partners, or Non-Blood Related Caregivers Have?

The Georgia legislature responded to an appellate case from the Georgia Court of Appeals that took custody away from a step-father.  I discussed the reasoning behind this in the 2016 blog post.  The case, Baskin v. Halediscussed how the parties lived together as boyfriend and girlfriend but never married.  They had two boys together and mom brought a daughter from a previous relationship into the home.  At one time, the mother agreed in writing to give her partner joint custody of all three children.

At trial, it was demonstrated that the mother was an unfit parent who posed long-term harm to the children if she were awarded custody.  The court awarded custody of all three children to dad.  Unfortunately for the father and the daughter, he was only step-parent to the girl, not related by blood, and the trial court therefore had no power to award custody. The court upheld the custody award to the dad of the two boys who were legitimated and his biological and legal children.

The appellate court gave the girl to her unfit mother, a tragedy when the man she thought of as her father her entire life was available and willing to be her primary parent.  To prevent this kind of tragic outcome, the Georgia legislature passed the Equitable Caregivers Act.  

How do Step-Parents, or Gay or Lesbian Parterns Get Custody Under the New Law?

This new step-parent custody and visitation statute can give non-parents standing to get custody or visitation rights with step-children or other unrelated children if the following elements are met:

  1. They are a committed parent to the step-child
  2. They’ve engaged in consistent caretaking of the step-child
  3. They’ve established a relationship with the step-child with a parental like bond which was consented or fostered by the biological parent
  4. They’ve accepted full and permanent responsibilities as a step-parent with the step-child without expectation of financial rewards
  5. The child will suffer physical or long-term emotional harm if the step-parent is not given custody or visitation and it’s considered the in the best interest of the child 

How to Get Custody or Visitation of a Step-Child

The new statute has multiple elements and complexities we can’t address in this blog.  A lot of things will be very fact-specific to the individual cases of a step-parent trying to get custody or visitation with their step-child.  We recommend that you speak with an attorney who is an expert in the field.  There is good news because of the change in the law from 2016 and what we wrote about at that time. If you’re a step-parent or gay or lesbian partner with children together we may have legal options for you.

If you have any questions, we’d be happy to speak with you at Shaw Law Firm.  We are Atlanta, Georgia Divorce and Child Custody Lawyers, have been doing this since 1995.