In an ideal world, when a family goes through divorce, the parents would both have a willingness to co-parent and would both provide suitable living environments for the children. And in some cases, parents do follow this script, agreeing to a particular custody plan together and having two fine homes for raising the children. In cases that do not follow the script, the court will need more information to assist it in crafting the best Parenting Plan for the family. That additional information usually consists of a custody evaluation.
Recall that in Missouri, the court has to decide legal custody (who makes decisions for the children) and physical custody (who has the children during the year and at what times). Joint legal custody means parents share the decision making, while sole legal custody means only one parent makes the decisions concerning the welfare of the children. Joint physical custody means parents have equal or close to equal time with the children in their respective custody. Sole physical custody means one parent has the bulk of the custodial time with the other parent having designated periods of visitation.
Where two parents have significant conflict that suggests joint parenting will not work, and each parent claims the ability to be the sole custodian, the court will need more information than just the testimony of the parents. The court will look for outside help. This will come in two forms. First, the court will likely appoint a Guardian ad Litem to represent the interests of the children and gather information from both parents to bring a child-centered point of view to the court. Second, the court might seek a custody evaluation, particularly if the parents seem particularly heated in the litigation or one or both have raised issues of abuse or neglect.
What is a custody evaluation?
A custody evaluation involves a professional, usually a psychologist, with particular training and expertise in the area of divorced households. The court may choose the evaluator alone or allow each parent to have input in the selection of the evaluator. Once appointed, the evaluator will begin by interviewing each parent alone, gathering information about themselves, the marriage, the children and the household. The evaluator may choose to administer a variety of psychological examinations if certain concerns present during the interview or the litigation. Most psychological examinations involve a mixture of clinical observation with standard tests in the field, usually responses to survey questionnaires. The evaluator will also interview the children, both alone and with a parent, to get a sense of how the child interacts with the parent. The evaluator may also interview other key people, from teachers to family members. Finally, the evaluator may conduct an unscheduled home visit to see what each parent’s home environment looks like and how the children do in this environment.
After the evaluator has completed all of the data gathering, the evaluator will prepare a written report for the attorneys and ultimately the court. The report will contain all of the data, any test results or psychological evaluations, a summary of interviews and finally an answer to the questions that caused the evaluation in the first place – what custody arrangement would best suit this family and why.
Who pays for the custody evaluation?
The court will order one parent or both parents to pay for the evaluation, based in part on the incomes of the parents and in part on who may have necessitated the evaluation.
In our next post we will discuss how the parties and the court use the custody evaluation, and its impact on a final custody arrangement.
If you have questions about custody evaluations and divorce, contact us – we can help.