There are a lot of unknowns in a divorce case, especially if child custody is at issue. Parents who aren’t able to reach a custody agreement may have to leave the decision up to a judge. In a contested case, parents can request - or a judge may order - a custody evaluation.
An evaluator's report will contain recommended custody and visitation arrangements, and a judge will typically defer to the evaluator's opinion. However, if you disagree with the evaluator’s report, you aren’t necessarily bound by its terms.
How do I find a custody evaluator?
In some cases, a judge will assign a specific evaluator to your custody case. Other times, you and your spouse will have to find an evaluator you can agree upon. Your lawyer should be able to recommend an experienced custody evaluator. It’s appropriate to find out about the evaluator’s experience level; however, you’ll want to avoid aggressively interviewing an evaluator, because that may create a negative first impression of you.
What is a custody evaluator’s role?
A custody evaluator is a licensed psychologist or mental health professional, who will spend a substantial amount of time interviewing people related to your custody case, including:
- you and your child's other parent
- your relatives
- your child, and
- your child's doctors, teachers, and therapists.
Ultimately, a custody evaluator will recommend a specific custody arrangement that outlines visitation, time-sharing, and primary custody roles. An evaluator may suggest family or individual therapy. The evaluator’s recommendation will be submitted to the judge and any attorneys involved in your case.
What if I don’t like the evaluator’s recommendation?
Once the custody evaluator’s report is complete, you and your lawyer should sit down to discuss the details. You may agree with aspects of the evaluation, or you may disagree with the entire report. In either case, your lawyer is the best person to advise you about next steps.
Although a custody evaluator’s report carries a lot of weight at trial, it is only a recommendation – a judge doesn’t have to follow it. If the evaluation criticizes your parenting abilities or limits your custody, there’s still hope. Your lawyer and your spouse’s lawyer can use the evaluation as a negotiating point to try to help you reach your own custody agreement. Alternatively, if your case goes to trial, your lawyer can put the custody evaluator on the witness stand to explain the evaluation. In some cases, a judge may determine that the evaluator didn’t consider all relevant information and may reject the recommendation contained in the report.
If you have questions after reading this article, consult a local family law attorney for advice.