Decision-Making Authority and Separated Parents

Article written January, 2012; revised September 7, 2015


           When a couple divorces or separates and minor children are involved, there are several issues to resolve.  Custody, a visitation schedule, and an amount of child support to be paid must all be detailed for the court.  Also, it must be decided which parent has the final decision-making authority in the event the two parents, after reasonable discussion, cannot agree on major life decisions for the child. 

           Most parenting plans divide decision-making authority over major life decisions into four categories: Religion, Education, Non-emergency health care, and Extra-curricular activities.  The parent with final decision-making authority over non-emergency health care decisions will be the one to make the final call regarding whether tonsils are removed, whether the child will get tubes in the ears after a doctor's recommendation, and so forth.  The parent with final decision-making authority over extra-curricular issues will be able to have the final say about whether to sign the child up for piano lessons, soccer, baseball, karate, etc. 

If the other parent acts to violate the decision made by the parent with the final decision-making authority, there is a remedy.  The parent with the final decision-making authority can sue the other parent for contempt of court (willful disobedience of a court order), and have his or her authority affirmed by the court and the other parent punished. Right?  Well, maybe.

Georgia’s Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s decision thwarting the efforts of a parent in just such a situation.  In Earle v. Earle, decided in 2011, the father had final decision-making authority regarding extra-curricular activities.  The father in that case fired one golf instructor and hired another, but the mother refused to allow the child to participate in certain golf tournaments during the periods when the mother had physical custody of the child, and the mother continued to use the instructor that the father had fired.

It sounds like an open-and-shut case if a court order giving one parent final decision-making authority is to carry much weight or any weight at all, but the trial court refused to hold the mother in contempt and the Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.  A close review of the holding of our state’s Court of Appeals reveals the following:

1.   The father appealed pro se and did not include a transcript with his appeal. 
The lesson to take away from this is that it is VERY important to hire a competent lawyer and pay for the transcript to be taken down by a court reporter and then sent up to the appellate court.  The Earle court held that “without the transcript of the hearing, ‘it is presumed that the evidence supports the trial court’s findings’” (citing Blue v. Blue, 279 Ga. 550).

2.   To a significant extent, the father's time with the children is the father's time, and the mother's time with the children is the mother's time.
The Court stated that “the trial court did not impermissibly modify the earlier decree but instead clarified the extent as to which the father's decision making as to children's extracurricular activities could encroach upon the mother's custodial time.” 
The lesson to take away from this is that a parent’s decision-making authority is not without limitation.  Here, a father’s decision to have a child enrolled in golfing activities couldn’t be too intrusive on the mother’s time with the child. 

Could the Court’s reasoning be extended to an argument that a parent with final decision-making authority in regard to non-emergency health care may not be able to force the other parent to pay a share of very expensive elective procedures such as cosmetic dental work?  Perhaps.  Once again, as with paragraph number one, the lesson involves getting competent legal representation regarding a parent’s situation.

This article was written for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as legal advice.  Our Court of Appeals or the Georgia Supreme Court may issue later decisions that modify, limit, or overrule Earle v. Earle.  Varying facts distinguish one person’s case from another.  Anyone and everyone reading the above article should discuss their case with an attorney and should not assume that the above information would apply in any particular way to their own case.