Custody and visitation provisions can be the toughest issues to resolve for a divorcing couple. Ideally, parents should reach an agreement that puts the needs of their children first and that makes sense for the living situation each parent expects to have following divorce. When parents cannot agree on custody matters, a court is likely to require a formal custody evaluation.
In most states, one or both parents may request a custody evaluation or the court may choose to initiate an evaluation. The evaluator is to review the family situation and file a written report with the court making recommendations regarding custody, visitation and related issues.
Evaluations can take place during the divorce process or following divorce if one party later seeks to change custody and visitation provisions. Regardless of whether the evaluator is called a parenting investigator, Guardian ad Litem or Court Appointed Special Advocate, the goal remains the same - to provide the court with reasoned recommendations from a neutral party.
Evaluators may be experienced family law attorneys, mental health professionals or other specially trained individuals. States typically maintain a list of persons qualified to act as custody evaluators. When a court determines an evaluation is necessary, the court may select a person from the list or offer the parents a few names and an opportunity to mutually select one of them.
Parents are usually required to pay for the custody evaluation, and the court will determine the percentage each parent must contribute. A court-appointed evaluator can be expected to charge between $1000-3000. While each parent has the right to hire his or her own evaluator, the cost of hiring a private evaluator can easily run five to six times as much.Evaluation Procedure
Most custody evaluations are very similar. The evaluator will generally review the court file to obtain provide basic information about the parents and children. The file may also offer a wealth of information if the parents have previously filed dueling affidavits seeking a temporary custody order. Contested cases often include numerous sworn statements from each parent and his or her supporters regarding why that parent should get primary custody and why the other parent is unfit to get custody.
The evaluator will interview each parent several times. Interviews may take place in the home or at the evaluator's office and will be scheduled in advance. Surprise visits do not occur. Children will be interviewed separately, but the evaluator will schedule at least one session with each parent and the children together to observe family interaction.
Psychological testing may be required of both parents and children. The evaluator may also follow-up with teachers, doctors, caregivers, counselors and other persons who may provide relevant information about the child or family situation.Personal Conduct During Evaluations
Evaluators understand and expect that you will naturally be anxious when you meet for the first time. While discussion with your attorney may provide some specific directions to follow, generally you should strive to be yourself, be truthful, provide information requested by the evaluator and focus on why your position is in the best interest of your children.
Don't assume the evaluator is on your side. The evaluator must remain neutral to make an objective assessment. Even if you oppose the evaluation, assume a positive attitude and be cooperative. Treat meetings like a job interview. Be on time. Dress appropriately. Organize any school or medical records you want to provide in advance. If the evaluator requests documentation you do not have, provide it as soon as possible.
The evaluator will ask questions to learn how you provide for your child's daily needs and how you work to maintain a stable and nurturing relationship. Expect to be asked about your involvement with the child's school, how you help your child develop positive, appropriate relationships and about your ability to financially support the family. The evaluator will be looking for examples that show use of good judgment regarding the child's welfare.
Don't spend a lot of time disparaging the other parent. If the court file has been littered with accusatory affidavits, the evaluator will likely already be aware of your positions. Only make accusations against the other parent that you can support with specific evidence.
Keep the discussion focused on what you believe is in the best for the children. Honestly discuss both your strengths and weaknesses as a parent and be prepared to do the same about the other parent if asked. Your comments should demonstrate that your child's welfare is a priority. Keep the discussion focused on parenting concerns rather than general marital issues which have little to do with custody and visitation.
In virtually all other aspects of divorce, children are kept out of the process while the adults battle in court. Children become directly involved when custody evaluations are ordered. Children can become anxious and fearful, and the parent's job is to be reassuring and supportive. Don't coach children on what to say. Simply make it clear they should tell the truth.
Follow all existing custody and visitation orders to the letter during this process. Failure to comply with current orders, lying or misleading the evaluator will be looked upon very negatively.Evaluation Review and Response
Once the evaluator has completed the investigation, a written report summarizing the information reviewed and making recommendations will be submitted to the court with copies given to each parent. The evaluation process can take 30-60 days depending on complexity of the issues.
Recommendations will be included for custody and visitation arrangements. The evaluator may also recommend individual or group counseling, procedures parents should use to resolve future conflicts and whether major decisions regarding the children should be made jointly or by only one parent.
The evaluation should be reviewed carefully with your attorney. Though judges are not bound to follow an evaluator's recommendations, the report is usually given great weight by the court and is often decisive when courts are required to make judgments regarding custody matters. Whenever custody or visitation issues are involved, consultation with an experienced family attorney is recommended to help ensure parental rights are protected. If you have any questions concerning a custody evaluation, call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen at (201) 845-7400 for free consultation.