Courts are relying more and more on custody evaluators to assist in determining child placements. But, what are these evaluations and how do you get ready for them? Find those answers and more by scheduling with a custody evaluation expert. Reduce your stress by learning about the process from the same experts that conduct the evaluations.
Custody or parenting time evaluation are interchangeable terms. They are evaluations of a family, typically ordered by a family court judge to provide the Court with recommendations as to what custodial, visitation, and legal decision-making arrangements are in a child’s best interest. These evaluations consist of, at a minimum, interviews of all parties, speaking to professionals or others involved in the family’s life, and review of records. It might also consist of psychological testing on parents and children, home visits, and parent-child observations sessions. All of this culminates in a report submitted to the family court using the relevant criteria of your state’s statutory “best interest factors.” The evaluator will likely make recommendations other than those involving custody and legal decision-making recommendations such as therapy for the children, or the use of a mediator or parenting coordinator.
In addition to the typical issues of parent child relationships and parenting capacity, these evaluations may, if relevant, also address issues such as substance abuse, domestic violence, parental alienation, visitation resistance, and relocation of one parent.
The first step is to speak to your attorney about whether having this evaluation makes sense for your particular case. If your attorney agrees, he or she may have a list of professionals who do this kind of work, and the other side may have their own list from which each attorney submits a name or two about which an agreement is reached. A court order is usually written outlining the parameters of the evaluation and sent to the evaluator.
Professional credentials can vary, but the evaluator will almost always have, at a minimum, a master’s degree in a mental health profession, with evaluators typically holding a doctorate degree in a relevant field, usually psychology. They will also be licensed in your state.
Most importantly, however, it is important to look for evaluators with as much experience as possible performing these evaluations for the courts and who are familiar with the typical issues involved. Performing family court evaluations is a specialty area that requires specific training and relevant experience that one does not typically get in graduate school. Ongoing continuing education to maintain current knowledge is critical. Affiliation with organizations such as the Association for Family and Conciliation Courts, and the Academy of Forensic Psychology are also things to look for. Do not be reluctant or hesitant to ask about your evaluator’s base of knowledge and experience.
Parenting time evaluations can take as little as two months and as long as one year depending on the complexity of the case, the willingness of the parties to do their parts, and the schedule of the evaluator. The average is somewhere between these extremes, at five to seven months.
The parents are responsible for the fees, which are usually divided equally between them. The fees can also vary, usually depending on the experience of the evaluator, from 4K to as much as 10K, but usually fall somewhere within that range. Health insurance does not cover the costs of these evaluations.
Sometimes, the report is used as the basis for the parties to come to an agreement without the lengthy, stressful, and costly expense of a trial. If, however, one or both sides objects to the recommendations, a trial takes place with each side presenting their evidence and reasons why they are for or against the recommendations of the evaluator. The evaluator will be called to testify as to his or her findings and respond to any questions that the attorneys may have. It is ultimately the decision of the Court, based on having heard all of the information that went into the evaluation and was presented at trial. If either party disagrees with the ruling, they have the right to appeal.
Discuss the matter with your attorney and follow their advice. Discuss who is responsible for getting relevant records to the professional. Seasoned evaluators will tell you that the best thing you can be is honest and forthright, with an effort towards transparency. Attempts to manipulate evidence or lie about facts will not be viewed favorably.
Evaluators are looking for strengths and weaknesses that we all have as parents. Showing an understanding of these, along with demonstrating that you have and are taking steps to reduce the impact of your deficiencies and build on your strengths will always be viewed favorably.
Do not use the evaluation as an attempt to malign or disparage your ex. A reasonable and measured approach to sharing concerns is fine but going too far and presenting information in a “black/white” fashion, with your ex as having all of the negative qualities, with you all the positive ones, will not have the desired effect. Remember that you got together with your ex and chose to have children with them. To wait until you are in the throes of a custody battle to present evidence that he or she is completely unfit as a person and parent will be viewed with a skeptical eye at best.
When it comes to preparing your children, ask the evaluator their preference as to how to approach them and what to say. How you do this will depend on the age of the children, what they know, and what has happened thus far.
Continue to live your life as usual, and this includes the way you are with your children. Do not make any untoward changes in your life or lifestyle for the purposes of the evaluation that are not necessary. Making major changes such as having your significant other move out at the start of the evaluation may be viewed skeptically. Being completely honest and transparent during the process will result in less for you to worry about. Remember that the evaluator is not looking for perfection. There is no need for you to present in any way other than you truly are with your kids.
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