Family Law

What is a Child Custody Evaluation and When Will the Divorce Court Order It?

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Learn the ins and outs of custody evaluations.

What Is a Custody Evaluation?

When separating or divorcing parents aren't able to agree on a workable child custody arrangement, a judge will have to make custody decisions for them, including who should have legal custody (the right to make decisions for the child) and physical custody (where the child will live). Judges handling custody disputes will typically order a custody evaluation, which comes in the form of a report that's prepared by professional custody evaluator (a licensed psychologist or mental health professional). The final report will contain the evaluator’s opinion about the best custody arrangement for the child. Although judges aren't required to adopt these recommendations, they often do.

During the custody evaluation, the evaluator takes an in-depth look at the parent-child bond, each child’s physical and emotional needs, each parent’s ability to meet those needs, and each parent’s mental and physical health. The evaluator will spend time interviewing all those involved in the child's life, including the parents and grandparents (if any), the child, the child’s teachers, doctors, therapists, extended family, and anyone else who might have information about the child's home life and needs.

After considering all the information gathered, the evaluator will recommend a specific custody arrangement based on your child’s best interests. Your attorney will review the custody evaluator’s report with you and discuss its potential impact on your case.

When Will a Divorce Court Order a Custody Evaluation?

You and your spouse can request a custody evaluation on your own or a court may require one in your divorce. Typically, a judge will order a custody evaluation if you and your spouse have tried mediation, but can’t reach an agreement on custody. Alternatively, you and your spouse may want a custody evaluation to sort out your children’s needs and potential custody schedules. Although the evaluator’s report isn’t binding, a judge will consider the report when determining custody.

What Happens if I Don’t Agree With the Custody Evaluation?

A custody evaluator’s report will make specific recommendations regarding visitation, primary custody, and possibly even therapy. You may agree with some, none, or all of the recommendations. A judge isn’t required to follow the custody evaluator’s report, however, courts usually give these findings significant weight because of the custody evaluator’s experience and time spent evaluating each child's best interests.

If you don’t agree with the evaluator’s recommendations, it’s important to discuss those issues with your attorney. You still have the opportunity to settle your case before going to trial. You and your spouse are free to reach your own custody agreement that may or may not conform to the evaluator’s recommendations. In the event you and your spouse don’t settle, your attorney can question the custody evaluator at trial to uncover the reasoning behind the evaluator’s recommendations. A judge may decide that the custody evaluator didn’t consider an important issue or that the recommended custody arrangement doesn’t serve the children’s best interests.

A custody evaluation can be a great tool to help a judge decide custody or to provide a starting point for you and your spouse to negotiate visitation and custody issues. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand the potential pitfalls if an evaluator’s report doesn’t work in your favor. If you have questions about custody evaluations, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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