Texas Custody Evaluations: What Parents Should Know

In a child custody evaluation, a judge orders a counselor, therapist, licensed social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist to investigate specific issues in a case.

After investigating, the evaluator compiles a report reviewing each party’s strengths and weaknesses as a parent. The report may also provide recommendations to the court, if the judge requested them.

Custody evaluations were once known by a variety of names — psychological evaluations, forensic evaluations, social studies and more — that you may still hear from time to time around the state.

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Common reasons for evaluations

Evaluations can be ordered by a court any time an investigation into a family’s circumstances would help determine the best parenting arrangement.

They can be requested by a parent or ordered by a judge on his or her own accord. If the parents do not agree to the evaluation, the judge must first hold a hearing to decide whether an evaluation is necessary.

Many cases that go to trial over conservatorship, possession or access will require an evaluation, especially when they have complex aspects hard to cover thoroughly in a courtroom.

Concerns about the following special circumstances often prompt custody evaluations:

  • Domestic violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental illness
  • A child with special needs
  • A request to move a child out of state
  • Questionable parenting

Whether or not you have an evaluation will depend on your case, judge and court. Some judges use evaluations frequently because they like to hear from an unbiased expert. Other judges rarely use evaluations, instead making their judgments based on evidence like witness testimony. In Travis County, courts more often turn to guardian ad litems than child custody evaluators.

Selecting an evaluator

Once a custody evaluation has been deemed necessary, there are several ways to choose an evaluator.

Some judges ask each party to choose three possible evaluators, from which the judge selects one name, unless the parties agree on one first. Other judges select the evaluator without input from the parties.

Some counties maintain a list of approved evaluators, and others — like Harris County and Tarrant County — offer the option of evaluations done by their Domestic Relations Offices.

The evaluation process

Regardless of the questions posed by the court, the evaluator must use the same tools required by the Texas Family Code:

  • Interviews with everyone named in the suit, including any children over 4 years old
  • Observation of the children with each parent (sometimes done at the parent’s home)
  • Review of school records, medical records, criminal records and other relevant documents

If necessary, psychometric tests or mental exams may also be given by a qualified professional. The evaluator may also interview other people with knowledge of the family, from babysitters to doctors.

Evaluator's report

Once the evaluator has finished assessing a family’s situation, he or she will compile the findings into a report on each party’s parenting strengths and weaknesses. The report might also provide recommendations as to how the court should rule.

The evaluator will notify the court when the report is complete, and share the report with the attorneys or self-representing parties in the case.

Often times, parents agree to settle after seeing the evaluator’s report, so the case never goes to trial.

If the case does proceed to trial, the judge or jury will not see the report until a party enters it as evidence. It then becomes one of the factors the judge (and jury, if applicable) considers when deciding the case.

If either party objects to the report, they can question the evaluator during the trial. In addition, they can hire other evaluators to testify about issues with the report.

Time and costs

Evaluations typically take three to nine months. In rural counties, they may take as little as six to eight weeks. On the other hand, complex cases in more populous areas can take over a year, as evaluator sometimes have to acquire information from as many as 75 sources.

Evaluators charge a flat rate, hourly fee or combination of the two. Parents usually split the costs evenly, though one party can be ordered to pay the entire fee.

Total costs range widely, from $500 per side (in small counties) to $15,000 per side (for exceedingly complicated cases in populous areas). Evaluations done by Domestic Relations Offices are often much less expensive. For example, parties pay $110 to $720 each, depending on their income, for an evaluation by the Harris County Domestic Relations Office.

Special circumstances

Cases sometimes have more than one evaluator, especially if one is in training or based far away. These evaluators can split up duties or collaborate on each one. You could also have multiple evaluators if your first evaluator were dismissed for conflict of interest, bias or not following code, though this doesn't happen often.

Some parents take extra precautions to maintain their family’s privacy during an evaluation. By law, evaluators cannot disclose information about a case; they release their reports only to the attorneys or self-represented parties in a case. Still, to prevent information from accidentally getting into the wrong hands, a judge may agree to set additional rules for an evaluator. For example, the evaluator may have to review documents in the presence of an attorney.

Evaluators today are on the lookout for a behavior called parental alienation. This is when one parent attempts to distort their child's relationship with the other parent through false claims and manipulation. If an evaluator identifies parental alienation, he or she may recommend that the alienated parent receive gradually-increasing possession time or be named sole managing conservator.

Tips for parents going through an evaluation
  • Meet with an attorney or use other resources to make sure you understand the process.
  • Take all interactions with the evaluator seriously. Arrive on time, dress neatly, be prepared with documents, etc.
  • Always show that your children are a priority in your life. Keep their interests and needs at the forefront, rather than your own.
  • Remember your words and actions will go into a report. Treat the evaluator with respect, and don’t argue.
  • Be honest.
  • Recognize both your strengths and your weaknesses as a parent.
  • Try not to speak negatively about the other parent.
  • Don’t coach your children.
  • Be forthcoming with any questions you have.
Staying organized

Evaluations add complexity to an already-complex process.

Throughout your case, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft possession 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, possession calendars, a digital journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you’re prepared for whatever arises in your journey to conservatorship, possession and access.

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 possession schedules.

Make My Texas Plan Now

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

Make My Plan