If you're a parent going through a divorce, a judge will need to decide how you'll share parenting time with your ex and who will make decisions about your kids. Many divorcing parents are able to reach their own custody settlement agreements without going to court. When parents can't agree, a judge may order a custody evaluation to help assess what is in the child's best interests.
A child custody evaluation is a report put together by a custody evaluator. It summarizes the evaluator's findings and recommends why one parent should get custody over the other. Custody evaluators are trained mental health professionals and usually have experience as a child therapist or psychologist.
The custody evaluation process can take a few weeks to complete. Your evaluator will want to gather information and meet with you and your children individually to make sure a child isn't being unfairly pressured by a parent to say certain things.
If you can't reach a custody agreement with your spouse after trying mediation, a judge may order a custody evaluation. Parents can request a custody evaluation even if a judge doesn't. Custody evaluations are usually appropriate in cases where the parents can't agree on custody or where one parent is claiming that the other parent is "unfit." A custody evaluator can get to the bottom of the parents' claims and help a court determine what kind of arrangement is in the child's best interests.
A judge might assign a specific custody evaluator to your case, or you and your spouse can pick an evaluator yourselves. In many cases, your lawyer might be able to recommend a good custody evaluator for your divorce.
Whether you're choosing an evaluator yourself or picking from some options given to you by the judge, you should ask your lawyer for information about the evaluator. For example, your lawyer might be able to tell you about past experiences with the evaluator or the evaluator's history of recommending custody to mothers over fathers. You can also ask your lawyer about the evaluator's ability to handle unique cases, such as evaluating custody for a child with special medical needs. You shouldn't question the evaluator directly because you don't want to do anything that might negatively affect the evaluator's impression of you.
If you and your ex spouse agree to a custody evaluation but you can't agree on the evaluator, you can each hire your own evaluators. But before you hire your own evaluator, you might want to consider the costs. If the court orders the evaluation and you use the county's evaluator, you'll likely pay a lower hourly rate than if you hire a private evaluator. While a county custody evaluation will probably cost between $1,000 and $2,500, you might end up paying as much as $15,000 or more for a private evaluation.
Many evaluators use psychological testing for both children and parents. Some evaluators do the testing themselves; some might send you to another professional for testing. In addition to testing, a custody evaluator will interview the child(ren) and the parents, as well as any teachers, babysitters, family friends, and extended family members.
The evaluator might also examine health records, school report cards, and attendance records. Once all the evidence is gathered and reviewed, the evaluator will recommend to the court that either the parents share joint custody or one parent should receive primary physical and legal custody. A judge doesn't have to follow a custody evaluator's recommendation. However, a custody evaluation done by a trained evaluator will carry a lot of weight in your case.
The custody evaluator will submit the report to you, your spouse, and the court at the same time. The report might make recommendations about the following:
Additionally, your custody evaluation report might recommend a reevaluation for a specific time in the future, especially if your children are very young.
If anything happens in the evaluation process that concerns you—for example, the evaluator appears to have a strong bias in favor of your spouse or asks questions you think are inappropriate—talk to your lawyer immediately, before the report is submitted. A judge might not take your concerns seriously if they're raised after the report.
After you get the custody evaluator's recommendation, you should discuss it with your lawyer. If the recommendation is acceptable to you, you're probably better off agreeing to the recommended course of action and giving up your day in court, where you might end up getting less. However, if the evaluation is unfavorable to you, you should discuss with your attorney how to contest it in court. A judge doesn't have to follow the custody evaluator's recommendation, especially if you can show it was biased or doesn't serve your child's best interests.