The Equitable Caregiver Act in Georgia, found in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) Section 19-7-3.1, provides legal recognition and potential parental rights to individuals who have provided care and support to a child, but are not necessarily biologically or legally related to them.
This act aims to ensure that children receive the care they need while also protecting those who have selflessly taken on this role. At Your Law Firm, we understand the importance of family and the legal complexities that may arise. Our team is prepared to provide the guidance and support you need to navigate this process to be established as an Equitable Caregiver and ensure the best outcome for everyone involved.
What is the Equitable Caregiver Act?
in 2019, Georgia enacted the Equitable Caregiver Act OCGA 19-7-3.1, a piece of legislation that acknowledges the role that non-legal, non-biological caregivers play in a child's life.
Under this law, individuals who have committed to caring for a child can seek legal recognition of their relationship with that child. If the court orders someone to be declared an Equitable Caregiver, the court can then also grant them parental rights, such as custody or visitation to the child. This is done without terminating any of the rights of the child's parents - making this person a kind of "third parent" in the child's life.
In order to determine whether or not someone is an Equitable Caregiver as defined by law, the court looks at several factors.
The person seeking to be adjudicated as an Equitable Caregiver, must show the court and prove all of the following:
- That they have fully and completely undertaken a permanent, unequivocal, committed, and responsible parental role in the child's life;
- That they have engaged in consistent caretaking of the child;
- That they have established a bonded and dependent relationship with the child, which relationship was fostered or supported by a parent of the child, and such individual and the parent have understood, acknowledged, or accepted that or behaved as though such individual is a parent of the child;
- That they have accepted full and permanent responsibilities as a parent of the child without expectation of financial compensation; and
- That they have demonstrated that the child will suffer physical harm or long-term emotional harm and that continuing the relationship between such individual and the child is in the best interest of the child.
Also, in looking at whether or not harm exists, the court is required to consider factors related to the child's needs, including, but not limited to, the following:
- Who are the past and present caretakers of the child;
- With whom has the child formed psychological bonds and the strength of those bonds;
- Whether competing parties evidenced an interest in, and contact with, the child over time; and
- Whether the child has unique medical or psychological needs that one party is better able to meet.
Other Information to Note
It's important to know that a parent of the child can actually consent to the court ordering someone to be an Equitable Caregiver of the child. This could be verbal consent given in court, or written consent between the parent and the individual seeking to be an Equitable Caregiver, where they both agree to share or divide caregiving responsibilities for the child.
You cannot request to be established as an Equitable Caregiver if both of the parents of the child are not separated and the child is living with both parents.
You also cannot bring such an action if your relationship with the child was solely made through a DFCS (Division of Family and Children Services) dependency case - such as a foster parent - and no one can bring such a case as long as DFCS has an open child welfare and youth services case involving the child or their parent.
Who Can be an Equitable Caregiver?
Stepparents could benefit from the Equitable Caregiver statute in situations where they have been a parental figure to their stepchild from the child's young age. If the bond is particularly strong, you may sometimes see stepparents adopting their stepchildren.
However, since an adoption means you have to terminate the rights of the child's other parent, sometimes it is in the best interest of the child to instead ask the court to give you the "third parent" status that comes with being an Equitable Caregiver, to preserve the child's relationship with their biological parents for the future.
And also to grant you the custodian status you already occupy in the child's life. In these kinds of cases, we usually see stepparents who are called "dad" or "mom" by their stepchildren, and where the other parent has been absent or missing for a long, long time.
Relatives - Grandparent, Aunt, Uncle, Extended Family
While visitation and even custody rights exist as court-actions for close relatives, such as grandparents, aunts, or uncles, these types of actions generally mean you have to prove that a parent is unfit or otherwise harmful to the child.
Or, you can only initiate them when the child's parents are divorcing or going through their own custody battle. As such, in situations where you have taken on a role as a "third parent" for a child who you're related to, and you have a good relationship with one of their parents, it makes more sense to do an Equitable Caregiver action to gain custody or visitation instead.
This way, you're simply asking the court to add your rights that are already being acted upon by you, and approved of by the child's parent, to a court-order to make it official. No need to have a long or drawn out custody battle, if you're acting as a parent to your relative child, and are on good terms with their parent.
Close Family Friends
If you are not related to the child you're a de facto parent to, but you are a close family friend, which is how you got your status as de facto parent in the first place - then Equitable Caregiver may just be the thing you need to establish custody or visitation rights with the child.
This is great because you would not otherwise be able to request custody or visitation of the child in any other circumstance, except maybe when DFCS (Georgia's version of child protective services) are involved. And DFCS placements are not permanent, since the goal of DFCS is to reunify the child and parents, eventually.
Thus, if you are already sharing in parental responsibilities with a close family friend's child, you may want to look at getting adjudicated as an Equitable Caregiver, to protect your relationship to the child legally, should anything ever happen to their parent.
Domestic Partners or Same-Sex Partners
Another way we see Equitable Caregivers established is when a couple, whether opposite sex domestic partners or same-sex partners, who choses not to marry, have lived together for a long time, and one partner acts as a parent to their partner's biological or legal children.
This is similar to a stepparent seeking to be adjudicated an Equitable Caregiver, except without the benefits of being married to the child's other parent.
This is also great for domestic partners, because without the Equitable Caregiver act, their rights as a "third-parent" would not be protected, since they are not married to the child's parent by law, and since they are not a relative to the child - the only other ways to establish custody or visitation outside of this act in Georgia.
How We Can Help
Becoming an Equitable Caregiver is not for everyone and is not necessarily easy. However, for those who have dedicated themselves to providing care and support to a child who is not legally their own, the Equitable Caregiver Act offers a path to legal recognition and protection.
At Your Law Firm, we have the experience and care to help you start the journey to become an Equitable Caregiver. Let us know when you're ready to begin.