In some contentious custody actions, the parties are not only unable to reach an agreement as to the best interest of their children, but they may believe that the children are either unsafe or not as well suited for one household. The Judge is not a psychologist and does not have the time to fully investigate the individual circumstances of the parties’ households, mental health or relationship with the children. In this case, a custody evaluation can be performed to more fully develop and analyze the specific circumstances of the parties and the minor children. A custody evaluation is an evaluation conducted by a psychologist to analyze the living situation, family dynamics, or any mental health issues of the parties, and other relevant concerns of the parties. At the conclusion of the custody evaluation, the psychologist will make a recommendation as to what custody schedule is in the best interest of the parties’ children. The recommendations are not binding on the Judge in that the Judge does not have to fully adopt the recommendations of the psychologist into a Court order, but most times, the evaluation is helpful to the Judge and can be a significant piece of evidence in a custody trial.
To begin the custody evaluation process, the parties will either agree to participate in the evaluation process and will agree as to how the fees for the evaluation are going to be divided between the parties, or, if the parties cannot agree, one party will petition the court to Order the parties to participate in the custody evaluation process. If the Judge orders a custody evaluation, he or she will typically allocate the fees between the parties as he or she deems appropriate.
Normally, a custody evaluator will speak with the children who are the subject of the custody action, the parents of the children, and any other household members. The evaluator will review documents and evidence as presented by the parties, and may speak to third parties such as individual counselors or other professionals with whom the parties are involved. In determining what custody schedule is in the best interest of the children, the psychologist will evaluate factors such as a party’s stability, the child(ren)’s relationship with a party, a party’s drug or alcohol abuse, and which party is more likely to encourage the child(ren) to have a relationship with the other party.
Custody evaluations are expensive and often take several months and sometimes over a year to complete. Due to the cost and the time that it takes to complete, custody evaluations are not needed or appropriate in every case, and are generally used in the most contentious cases. In these contentious cases, however, they can be absolutely vital to a successful outcome of the case.
If you have any questions about the custody evaluation process or whether it might be appropriate to use one in your case, please contact our office at (717) 731-8114 to discuss the specifics of your case. Our attorneys are experienced in complex custody actions and in determining when a custody evaluation is needed.