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Being a parent is hard. And, if you’re going through a divorce, the last thing you want is a stranger judging you on your parenting style. However, if you and your spouse are struggling to agree on custody arrangements, you may be subject to a custody evaluation. Though it sounds pretty straightforward, custody evaluations are typically quite nuanced. While no two cases are the same, many couples are overwhelmed by the cost and the experience of custody evaluations. While the custody evaluation can be an intricate process, having a general understanding of it may help you better prepare yourself.

What Is a Custody Evaluation?

A custody evaluation occurs when a qualified professional evaluates the parents and the circumstances and then makes a recommendation to the court regarding custody. These recommendations may include how much parent-time each parent should have, a parent-time schedule, and the role each parent should have in making decisions for the children. The person conducting the evaluation may be a psychologist, social worker, marriage and family therapist, or a mental health counselor. The evaluator is appointed by the court to be unbiased and objective: the evaluator’s job is solely to provide the court with information.

What Is a Custody Evaluation Looking For?

The custody evaluator is looking at the custody factors that the court is required to consider in making custody determinations. These include the parent’s moral character, emotional stability, desire for custody, ability to care for the child, history of substance abuse, involvement with the child, history of abuse, parenting skills, and co-parenting skills. They may interview friends and family members, speak with other care professionals such as doctors or teachers, watch the parents interact with the children, interview the children, and interview the parents. The parents may undergo psychological testing and be subject to personality tests. Parties can also submit evidence pertaining to the case, such as text messages or emails, for the custody evaluator to review.

What Does the Process Look Like?

At the end of the custody evaluation the parties, the evaluator, and counsel have a conference to hear the evaluator’s findings. In most cases the parties will have a mediator present for this conference and mediate immediately after receiving the recommendations of the custody evaluator. If the parties are unable to reach a resolution they will move forward to trial. In that case, either party can request the custody evaluator to prepare a detailed report of their findings. In this report, they will also include their recommendations for what custody arrangements they believe will be most beneficial to the children involved. Each party will be able to review the written custody evaluation report in their attorney’s office. In most circumstances, you will not be able to take a copy of the custody evaluation with you.

Who Needs a Custody Evaluation?

Not everyone needs to have a custody evaluation. Even if you and your ex cannot come to an agreement regarding custody arrangements, a judge may decide without the help of a custody evaluator. Custody evaluations are court-ordered, meaning that it is up to the court to decide whether or not one will take place. You can request a custody evaluation, but that does not mean the court will grant your request. When determining whether a custody evaluation should be ordered, the court will look to see if it can be paid for in a timely manner.  They will also need to determine that there is good cause for it. The court can find good cause simply by determining that the parties cannot come to an agreement on what’s in the best interest of the child. There are other situations that would quickly create good cause, such as allegations of child abuse, alienation, gatekeeping, substance abuse, etc. If you and your spouse have already agreed on custody arrangements, you will not need to have a custody evaluation.

What If You Don’t Agree with the Evaluator?

As previously stated, a custody evaluator is supposed to be an unbiased informant for the court. Though it’s impossible to completely eradicate human bias, an evaluator is supposed to remain as objective as humanly possible. Occasionally, parents feel as though the evaluation was unfair, or the evaluator was somehow biased against them. Though the court will generally not order another custody evaluation to be done, you can hire a rebuttal expert to refute the custody evaluator’s findings and recommendations. The rebuttal expert may also testify as to flaws they believe are in the evaluator’s processes and recommendations.

Does the Judge Have to Follow the Custody Evaluator’s Recommendations?

The results of the custody evaluation only recommendations; the judge is not required to adopt the recommendations. That being said, they must be able to provide some reasonable explanation for not following the custody evaluator’s recommendations. There is no written standard for what a reasonable explanation needs to include. Therefore, as long as a judge provides an explanation that is sensible, they may adopt or disregard the recommendations at their discretion. Regardless of what the evaluator found and recommends, there is never a guarantee that the judge will agree and adopt those recommendations. There is always a risk of placing the decision in the hands of the court.

Should You Have an Attorney?

If you’re about to go through a custody evaluation, and you don’t have an attorney, you should at the very least consult one. There are many benefits to having an attorney to prepare you for a custody evaluation. At CoilLaw, our attorneys have the experience necessary to help you navigate and prepare for a custody evaluation. If you’re going through a custody battle, and you’re looking for an attorney who will advocate for you, contact CoilLaw today.

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