Child Custody Evaluations: What Parents Need to Know

Child custody evaluations are assessments done by mental health professionals to clarify issues in complex custody cases. They're similar to investigations by guardians ad litem, but focus more on psychology.

Evaluators make recommendations as to what would serve the child's best interests, and the judge considers their input when deciding final custody orders after trial.

You may also hear these assessments called forensic custodial evaluations, psychological evaluations, social investigations and other similar names.

For information specific to the largest U.S. states, see our guides to evaluations in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

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Common reasons for evaluations

A judge orders an evaluation of their own accord or after considering a request from a parent, an attorney or a professional representing the child. In some states, parents can hire an evaluator without a court order.

Evaluations typically occur in cases that involve at least one of the following:

  • Mental illness
  • Substance abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • A child with special needs
  • Accusations of parental misconduct
Selecting and paying the evaluator

Evaluators can be psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, counselors or therapists. They cannot have had prior involvement with the family.

Some courts have evaluations programs, and they may require parents to use an affiliated evaluator.

Otherwise, parents can work with any private practice.

Many times, to help parents agree on an evaluator, the judge asks one parent to list a few they would be willing to hire, and the other parent selects from the list. If that doesn't work, the court picks the evaluator.

Most evaluators charge a flat rate that's due in advance. The rate depends on the type of evaluation (details below).

The court order specifies how parents must divide the cost, with each parent typically paying half. Some courts cover costs for low-income families.

Types of evaluations
Full evaluations

A full evaluation assesses each custody issue in a case. The process generally takes at least two months and may involve:

  • Interviews with the parents, the child and others connected to the family
  • Psychological exams of the parents and the child
  • Home visits
  • Observations of parent–child interactions
  • An in-depth review of documents (e.g., criminal, medical and academic records)

It's common for the evaluator to interview people more than once. Parents usually meet one-on-one with the evaluator, but in some areas, they attend meetings together.

You may have to sign release forms giving the evaluator access to certain records.

Costs can range from $5,000 to more than $30,000 depending on the complexity of the case. You'll pay extra for psychological exams of additional family members, if necessary.

Brief assessments

Brief assessments are sped-up versions of full evaluations. The evaluator typically performs abbreviated interviews, psychological exams and home visits, but does not review many documents.

These assessments can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to complete. Their prices vary accordingly: from $500 to several thousand dollars.

Focused-issue evaluations

Some states employ focused-issue evaluations to address a specific concern in a case. For example, a focused-issue evaluation might look at one of the following:

  • Addiction
  • Mental or physical health
  • Anger management
  • Parental fitness
  • The safety of a parent's home

Like a brief assessment, this type of evaluation can take hours or weeks. They generally cost less than $6,000.

Evaluator's report

To conclude their investigation, the evaluator submits a report to the court that summarizes their findings and recommends a custody arrangement.

The report may specify a parenting schedule and suggest measures like therapy, substance abuse treatment, or appointing someone to represent the child (e.g., a guardian ad litem).

Generally, the judge, attorneys and parents can read the report. However, some states bar parents from viewing the report or only allow them to read it within the courthouse.

You can call on your evaluator to testify at trial in order to poke holes in the report or gain insight into it.

Special circumstances

Multiple evaluators can work on a case, either splitting duties or collaborating. For example, a social worker may bring in a psychologist to conduct psychological exams.

Evaluators must report suspected child abuse to authorities. The evaluation will continue but may take longer.

Your evaluation could uncover a behavior called parental alienation. This is when one parent attempts to harm the child's relationship with the other parent through lies and manipulation. Evaluators usually propose therapy for the alienated parent and child. They may also suggest gradually-increasing parenting time or even sole custody for that parent.

Some states allow parents to request another evaluation with a different evaluator if their initial assessment has issues.

Tips for parents going through a custody evaluation
  • Prepare with an attorney or legal professional.
  • Dress neatly for appointments, and arrive on time.
  • Keep your living space clean if the evaluator will visit.
  • Do not coach your child.
  • Comply with all the evaluator's requests in a timely manner. Otherwise, the evaluator may assume you're trying to conceal something.
  • Always show that your child is a top priority in your life.
  • Be honest.
  • Recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a parent.
  • Try not to speak negatively about the other parent.
  • Be forthcoming with any questions you have.
  • Consider providing letters of support from people close to your family. Though they may not change the evaluator's opinion, they can show commitment to the process.
Staying organized through an evaluation

Evaluations add complexity to an already-complex process.

Throughout your case, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft custody schedules, track time with your child, keep a log about interactions with the other parent, and more.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of this in one place. With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, a digital journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to custody and visitation.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

Custody X Change is software that creates customizable parenting plans and custody schedules.

Make My Plan Now

Custody X Change is software that creates customizable parenting plans and custody schedules.

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