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Morgan v. Morgan

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

April 12, 2019

MORGAN et al.

          MCFADDEN, P. J., MCMILLIAN and GOSS, JJ.

          McFadden, Presiding Judge.

         The grandparents of 13-year-old J. P. appeal the order awarding custody to his mother. The grandparents argue that the trial court erred by placing the burden of proof upon them, given that they are J. P.'s de facto parents, but the court properly required them to prove that awarding them custody was in J. P.'s best interests. The grandparents also challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, but the evidence supports the trial court's decision. So we affirm.

         1. Factual background.

         The trial court found the following facts in its final order and in its order denying the grandparents' motion for new trial and motion for reconsideration. See Strickland v. Strickland, 298 Ga. 630, 633-634 (1) (783 S.E.2d 606) (2016).

         The grandparents have been the primary custodians of J. P. for most of his life, but the parties contemplated the eventual return of custody to his mother. In 2008, the parties, along with J. P.'s now-deceased father who was the grandparents' son, entered a consent order that awarded custody of J. P. to the grandparents. The order expressly stipulated that, "[a]t such time as [the mother and the now-deceased father] are physically and mentally able to care for J. P., they may [p]etition . . . for a hearing and change of custody." In 2014 (by which time the father had died), the parties entered another consent order, agreeing to share joint legal custody and to allow the mother significant visitation with the child. The trial court found that these orders demonstrated the parties' intent that the mother could eventually regain custody.

         The trial court found that after the entry of the 2008 consent order, the mother began making changes to qualify her to regain custody. She is employed and has a stable home. She has visited J. P. regularly for years and has been a fit parent for J. P.'s sister - who is the grandparents' granddaughter. According to the trial court, the mother indicated that, if awarded custody, she would ensure that J. P. is able to continue participating in Scouting and other activities he enjoys.

         The trial court found that J. P. has unique psychological needs. The court specified that he has experienced stress and discomfort because of the lack of certainty about his custody; that the risk of him experiencing emotional harm due to a significant change in his circumstances is elevated; that he has received treatment from mental health professionals to help him cope with stressful family situations and with the trauma he experienced; and that as long as he continues to receive this treatment, the risk of emotional harm is substantially mitigated. The mother has contacted the mental health professionals treating J. P. to find appropriate professionals to take over his treatment, given the distance between the professionals already treating J. P. and her residence. The court found that either party, so long as they continue with recommended treatment for J. P., is capable of meeting his needs. The court concluded that the mother is a fit parent and that if custody were returned to her, J. P. would not suffer either physical harm or significant, long-term emotional harm.

         2. Burden of proof.

         The grandparents argue that the trial court erroneously placed the burden of proof upon them. They rely on Durden v. Barron, 249 Ga. 686 (290 S.E.2d 923) (1982), in which our Supreme Court ruled that, "Where a parent was a party to a proceeding in which his or her right to custody was lost and custody was permanently awarded to a third party, the parent does not have a prima facie right to custody." Id. at 686 (1). The court elaborated that:

[o]nce a third party has been awarded permanent custody of a child in a court proceeding to which a parent was a party, the roles of the parent and the third party reverse; that is, the third party now has the prima facie right to custody as against the parent who has lost the right to custody. The parent can regain custody upon showing by clear and convincing evidence his or her present fitness as a parent and that it is in the best interest of the child that custody be changed.

Id. at 686 (2).

Generally, however,
child-custody disputes involving a biological parent and a limited number of third parties who are related to the child, including grandparents, are governed by OCGA ยง 19-7-1 (b.1) (in accordance with the fundamental constitutional right of familial relations), which provides: [I]n any action involving the custody of a child between the parents or either parent and a third party limited to grandparent, great-grandparent, aunt, uncle, great aunt, great uncle, sibling, or adoptive parent, parental power may be lost by the parent, parents, or any other person if the court hearing the issue of custody, in the exercise of its sound discretion and taking into consideration all the circumstances of the case, determines that an award of custody to such third party is for the best interest of the child or children and will best promote their welfare and happiness. There shall be a rebuttable presumption that it is in the best interest of the child or children for custody to be awarded to the parent or parents of such child or ...

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