Custody Evaluations and Divorce – Part Two

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In our previous post, we explained the basics of a custody evaluation in situations where the parents strongly disagree about custodial arrangements and could benefit from a third party neutral professional providing information. In this post, we discuss what happens with the custody evaluation in helping to reach a final outcome in a case.

When parents have a high conflict disagreement over custody, the custody evaluation can help the parties reach an agreement without going to trial and letting the court decide. The evaluation may give both sides a window into parenting styles, individual parent issues, individual child issues and other information that allows the parents to see that the preferred custody arrangement may not work and they should consider the alternative suggested by the evaluator as in the best interests of the children. By putting all of this information on the table for the parties and before going the court, the parties have a good idea of what the evaluator would say in court, thereby encouraging both parents to work toward a settlement.

Let’s use an example. Two parents both believe joint custody cannot work because both parents refuse to work with one another, and each parent believes the other parent not suitable for sole custody. After an evaluation, the evaluator brings to light the children’s point of view, heavily focused on concerns about whether their parents love them, blame them for the divorce, and will continue to care for them. They complain about the fighting and that it is negatively impacting their daily lives. All this information about the children and how the parents behave could actually move the parents toward joint custody, some counseling for the children and some parenting classes for themselves.

Custody evaluations also shed light on an important question for physical custody: which parent is more likely to assure frequent and meaningful contact between the children and the other parent. Often both parents may make statements that appear to be respectful of the time scheduled for the other parent, but in a custody evaluation the evaluator may find that one or both parents do not practice what they preach and take every opportunity to restrict or interfere with the other parent’s custody time.

Some parents will not settle and will insist on going to trial. In this situation, the custody evaluator will become a key witness in the case, offering all of the data collected in the evaluation and opinions on different custody options. In court, the attorneys will try and take parts of the evaluation to favor their clients, but the court will look to the whole report for a sense of a more neutral take on this particular family. As such, the custody evaluation can take on a great deal of weight, more than what the parties may have imagined when they filed for divorce or agreed to the custody evaluation.

If you ask someone who has been part of a custody evaluation how it helped or hurt his or her case, that person more likely will give a negative rather than a positive answer, because evaluators rarely favor one side, so someone feels hurt or slighted, and the stakes are so high. Evaluations can be very personal and dig into parts of private lives in ways that feel invasive. A negative evaluation makes a parent feel like they have been branded unfit in some manner.

So, as you can see, custody evaluations are not for everyone and come with risks and rewards. If a parent approaches the whole process as a game to win, the evaluator will spot this and expose that parent in an unfavorable light. If both parents approach the process openly and honestly, the parents could get insight into what could make post-divorce life much more bearable. In the end, only the parents and the advice of their attorneys will determine whether a custody evaluation would be best in their case.

If you have questions about custody evaluations and divorce, contact us – we can help.