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Custody Evaluations

Custody Evaluations: What You Should Know

Custody disputes can occur between parents, whether they are married or unmarried. When such disputes do exist, it is often necessary to retain a custody evaluator to provide an objective recommendation as to which parent should have custody of the child or children born of the relationship between the parents. The goal of the evaluations is to determine what custody arrangement is in the child's best interests.

Custody evaluators are professional therapists that have mental health backgrounds. While most of these therapists specialize in custody evaluations, they often have a therapy practice as well. Similar to attorneys, these evaluators work on an hourly fee basis and usually request a retainer before performing their services.

Parties to a custody dispute can agree on one joint custody evaluator to use during the litigation. Parties can save money (as they only have to pay for one expert) and time (as there is only one expert and one round of interviews) by selecting one expert. It is important to note that the parties are responsible for paying for the custody evaluators; they are not paid by the courts. Nonetheless, each party often retains his or her own expert during the litigation, which increases the time and expense of the litigation. A court may appoint its own custody expert as well; however, a court-appointed experts' findings cannot be favored over those of the parties' experts. Regardless of which party retains the experts, that expert is obligated to conduct strictly non-partisan evaluation in order to arrive at the child's best interests.

The evaluation process could take up to several months to complete, depending upon the evaluator's schedule and his/her access to the parties as well as the parties' children. Custody evaluators often meet with "collateral contacts," which are individuals that are outside the immediate family, such as grandparents, teachers and neighbors. The evaluators can also review any relevant documentation that is provided by the parties or their attorneys.

When the evaluation process has been completed, the evaluator will submit a detailed report that will provide family history, a summary of his/her findings and recommendations as to what custody arrangement would be in the best interest of the child. The recommendations will not only include the specific custody arrangement, but should also include a suggested parenting time (visitation) schedule for the non-custodial parent and any therapeutic measures that should be taken to ensure the best interest of the child is protected. If two evaluators are retained (one by each party), it is not uncommon for the evaluators to differ as to their findings and recommendations. If there are two experts and their recommendations are far apart, it may be necessary to have a trial to decide the matter.

At a trial, the evaluators will have to testify as to the findings in their reports and will be subject to cross-examination. The courts give great weight to the reports provided by the evaluators. In cases with only one evaluator, a court may very well follow the recommendations of that one expert verbatim. In cases involving two experts, the court will have to make a determination as to which evaluator was more credible or convincing before making a custody determination. It is still possible for the court to depart completely from an evaluator's recommendations, even if there is just one involved in the case, and create its own custody arrangement.

If you are involved in a custody dispute, it is important that you retain experienced attorneys who have expertise in the area and a familiarity with the custody evaluators most commonly used by the court. The attorneys at Donahue Hagan Klein & Weisberg have litigated many custody disputes and we have the ability to make the strongest case that can be made for our client's while also having the ability to find the weaknesses in our adversary's positions.