Atlanta is a large city with a vast network of family lawyers. So it may seem complicated finding a family lawyer who has the experience, personality, and professionalism you need. However, there are many resources available in Atlanta to simplify this process and lead you to the attorney whose profile best fits your specific needs. Whether you are seeking a pro bono legal aid organization or a paid private practitioner, the following information may help you get on track to finding a family lawyer that is right for you.
Distinctive Georgia Divorce Laws
Georgia law requires that couples seeking a divorce must wait 31 days from the day that the divorce petition was served on the respondent spouse. Courts will not grant a divorce petition before the expiration of the 30-day waiting period, regardless of spousal agreements. After the expiration of the waiting period, the filing spouse must request that the court begin the divorce process. In Georgia, all related issues of support, custody, and property distribution must be settled by agreement or by trial before the granting of the divorce. Notably, Georgia law provides divorcing parties with the right to a jury trial. This right may be waived by both spouses to have their divorce tried by the judge alone (also known as a bench trial).
Being that every marriage is licensed by the state in which the marriage happened, the only way to dissolve or undo a legal marriage is by state intervention in court. This procedure is called divorce or dissolution of marriage. Because marriages are licensed by the states, the states also have jurisdiction or control over all divorce matters. Therefore, divorces are not decided in federal court. As a general rule, a divorce case is usually within the control of the circuit court (civil trial court), which is located in the county in which the couple last lived as a married couple or in the county in which the spouse who is not seeking the divorce lived at the time of the divorce.
In Georgia, a divorce must be a complete severance that totally ends the legal relationship between spouses. Legal separation does not end a legitimate marriage. Divorce is also different from an annulment, which only functions to cancel a marriage that was never legal. For example, if one spouse was already married before and at the time of marrying another person, this marriage is voidable, and it may be annulled based on the preexisting marriage. Georgia law allows marriage annulments for other reasons, such as mental incapacity, incest, age (being under the minimum age to marry), impotence, intoxication, fraud, duress, and/or lack of intent to marry. Consummation of the marriage does prevent the marriage from being annulled or voided.
The Divorce Process
A divorce begins when one spouse files a petition with the court in which they are seeking to obtain a divorce. In Georgia, at least one spouse must have been a Georgia resident for at least six months before the divorce can begin. This is not to say, though, that one spouse must be physically located in Georgia for the entire six months. If the spouse(s) did not live in Georgia for the entire six months, the court is allowed to consider any spouse’s intent to reside in Georgia permanently and the reasons for the absence. Georgia residency may be proven by presenting government identification (e.g., driver’s license or voter registration card) or by the testimony of a witness.
Georgia recognizes two major reasons for granting a divorce. The first and most common reason is when a court finds that the marriage is irretrievably broken. As a matter of public policy, Georgia and all other states have abolished the at-fault standard of divorce, which declares one party to be more or less the cause of the divorce, in favor of the irretrievable broken standard. When a marriage is declared to be irretrievably broken, it means that the marriage has become so dysfunctional that it cannot be recovered. A court may order the couple to attend marriage counseling to determine if the marriage is, in fact, irretrievably broken.
In all cases, at least one spouse must give testimony to the effect that the marriage cannot be repaired. But it is important to note that even if the court finds that the cause of the marital dysfunction is the result of a condition that may be cured, the court may still declare the marriage to be irretrievably broken. For instance, a marital counselor may determine that one spouse is suffering from treatable depression and that depression is the cause of related marital dysfunction. This finding in and of itself may not necessarily prevent a court from declaring a marriage irretrievably broken. However, the spouses may mutually agree that the marriage is irretrievably broken. In these cases, the court will grant a divorce by operation of law. The occurrence of domestic violence within the marriage may also be grounds for finding a marriage irretrievably broken.
The other major reason for divorce in Georgia is what is called incapacity. Incapacity means that one spouse has legally been declared mentally incompetent for a minimum of three years before the filing of the divorce. A spouse who has been deemed to lack the mental capacity to be married may also submit a petition to divorce through their guardian. In these cases, the court must determine that the spouse who does have capacity has contributed to the failure of the marriage in some way. The only defense available to prevent this type of divorce is to deny the accusation of misconduct and present evidence to support the denial.
Once a court grants a divorce, the spouses will no longer receive the rights enjoyed by married people, such as certain tax protections and spousal immunity from testimony. The next question that is usually decided is how the assets and debts will be divided. If the spouses do not agree otherwise, Georgia law will divide marital property according to a procedure known as equitable distribution. This term can be misleading because the name implies a 50/50 split of the spouses’ property. However, this is not the case for the majority of divorce settlements. What equitable distribution actually means is that after each spouse discloses all of their assets and debts to the court, land and personal property will be distributed according to what is fair and reasonable for each spouse to receive, given the circumstances unique to their individual situations.
It is important to be aware that Georgia considers marital property to be property that was acquired and/or improved during the marriage by one or both spouses. For example, if one spouse owns a house before the marriage, and this house becomes the marital home, it will not be considered marital property for distribution purposes. But if the other spouse renovates the marital home at their expense during the marriage, the improvements will be considered marital property, and any increase in the house’s value will be considered marital property and subject to equitable distribution. Notably, attorney fees relating to the divorce may also be distributed according to fairness.
Is It Worth Finding an Attorney?
When beginning the process of finding a family lawyer, the first step is to know your needs and concerns as they relate to your divorce case. Generally, the more complex your legal needs are, the more you will need to hire an attorney. For example, you may be able to handle a simple, uncontested divorce without attorney representation. However, if you are seeking permanent alimony, or you anticipate your spouse to contest your divorce claim, the benefits of hiring an attorney increase accordingly. The same general rule applies to the cost of attorney representation. Thus, obtaining an uncontested divorce will likely cost much less than the costs associated with a highly contested divorce with marital children and substantial marital property involved. However, Georgia law requires that all attorney fees must be reasonable in proportion to the services performed. Other factors may affect the amount of attorney fees charged:
- Time and labor necessary to complete the job
- Novelty and complexity of the legal issues involved
- Level of skill employed to address the issue
- The probability that your legal issue will prevent the lawyer from taking other fee-earning work
- Customary fees charged in the legal industry for the specific type of work
- Amount of potential recovery
- Amount of time available to complete the job
- The results of the case
- Nature and duration of the relationship with your lawyer
If the fee is not a flat fee, you may expect to pay $100 to $300 per hour based on the above criteria. Note: You may be expected to pay attorney fees in advance of the finalization of a divorce. With respect to divorce filing fees, the cost to file for a divorce varies by county, but fees are usually less than $250.
Depending on your specific needs, it is important to ask a prospective family lawyer preliminary questions regarding their experience with handling your type of divorce, such as how long they have been handling your type of issue and at what rate of success, what professional certifications or licenses the attorney has relating to your issue (e.g., family law certification from a bar association), whether the attorney is also a mediator, what safeguards will be put in place to protect your privacy, whether their license to practice law is in good standing, how attorney fees will be calculated, and when the fees will be charged.
Georgia attorney discipline records occurring within the last six months can be searched here:
There are many resources available to aid you in your search for the right family attorney. The State Bar of Georgia maintains an index of all attorneys licensed to practice law in Georgia on their website:
This index allows you to search for an attorney based on certain criteria, such as geographic location, law schools attended, and services offered. Also, the following organizations and their contact information may be useful when looking to resolve your family/divorce matter:
Superior Court of Fulton County
136 Pryor St. SW Atlanta, GA 30303 (404) 612-4518
State Court of Fulton County
185 Central Ave. Atlanta, GA 30303 (404) 613-5040
Municipal Court of Atlanta
150 Garnett St. SW Atlanta, GA 30303 (404) 954-7914
Atlanta Legal Aid Society
54 Ellis St NE, Atlanta, GA 30303 (404) 524-5811
Georgia Legal Services Program
104 Marietta St NW # 250 Atlanta, GA 30303 (404) 206-5175
Clayton County Pro Bono Project
54 Ellis Street, NE Atlanta, GA 30303 (404) 524-5811