People to Know in a Child Custody Case
Custody cases can involve many professionals. Some are appointed by the court, and others parents choose to hire. Usually, parents are responsible for any associated costs, unless the court determines neither is able to pay.
Bring calm to co‑parenting. Agree on a schedule and plan. Be prepared with everything documented.
Associate judge (magistrate)
Many courts appoint associate judges to lighten the caseloads of standard judges. In most instances, associate judges (also called magistrates) must meet the same qualifications as standard judges.
Associate judges are similar to court referees (listed below) but with expanded powers. Though they can issue temporary and final orders, they mainly preside over preliminary hearings and handle time-sensitive issues, like requests for protective orders.
If you'd prefer a regular judge oversee your case, the court typically provides a time window for you to file an objection. If you do not object, the associate judge will hear your case just as a standard judge would. You will probably not notice any differences.
To challenge an associate's ruling, you can request a rehearing with a judge.
Attorney for the child (child counsel/advocate or attorney ad litem)
An attorney for the child (also known as a child counsel, child advocate or attorney ad litem) has the same responsibilities as an attorney litigating for an adult.
Among other things, they file paperwork, attend hearings, question witnesses and make arguments during trial.
To determine what custody arrangement to push for, the attorney gathers evidence, much of it from interviews with parents, teachers and others who know the family. If the child is old enough, the attorney also interviews them and represents their wishes in court.
Some courts appoint an attorney for the child in every custody case that goes to trial or when neither parent can afford an attorney. Elsewhere, these attorneys are appointed in highly-contentious cases or when there are signs of abuse or neglect.
Note that Virginia combines this role with that of a guardian ad litem (information below).
A bailiff is a law enforcement officer who stands guard in the courtroom to maintain order and ensure the safety of everyone present. Their duties include calling witnesses to the bench and collecting evidence from the parties.
Collaborative law team
Parents who use collaborative law to resolve their case work with a team of professionals to reach a custody or child support agreement.
Each parent must have a lawyer trained in mediation and collaborative law to advise them and help them negotiate.
Other team members may include:
- Family specialists (such as divorce coaches), who help parents improve communication and explore the best options for the welfare of the child
- Financial specialists, who investigate parents' finances to decide fair spousal and child support amounts
- Business appraisers, who determine the value of family-owned businesses or partial ownership in professional practices
- Facilitators or mediators, who lead sessions
At times, some members of the team meet separately; at others, the entire team comes together.
Court clerk (prothonotary)
A court clerk is a record keeper who collects paperwork for cases and schedules court appearances. In some areas, they perform service, the formal process of getting court documents to a party.
Some courts have prothonotaries instead of clerks. They perform the same duties as clerks, in addition to keeping track of exhibits and swearing in witnesses before trial.
Court referee (hearing officer or commissioner)
Courts hire referees to take on some of the responsibilities of a judge in order to speed up case timelines. You may also see referees referred to as hearing officers, commissioners or, in Virginia, commissioners in chancery.
Referees are similar to associate judges, but are usually attorneys and have tighter limits on their powers. They may be restricted to hearing certain types of cases, such as child support cases.
After hearing all or part of a case, referees report their findings to the judge, who makes the final decisions. Some courts allow referees to make decisions independently if both parents consent in advance.
Generally, parents can object to having a referee assigned. If you don't object and later have a concern, you can request a rehearing with a judge.
Court reporter (stenographer)
A court reporter (also called a stenographer) creates transcripts of all court proceedings. They're present during depositions, hearings, trials and, if applicable, the child's private testimony before the judge. In the courtroom, they sit behind a desk near the judge's bench.
Typically, they transcribe all the court proceedings of a specific judge.
Parents can obtain copies of the reporter's transcripts for a fee, excluding records of the child's private testimony.
An evaluator is a mental health professional who investigates a family during a child custody evaluation.
Their tasks vary based on location and the type of evaluation ordered, but they typically:
- Interview the family and people who know the family (e.g., doctors, friends)
- Observe each parent interacting with the child
- Inspect each parent's home
- Review documents related to the case
The evaluator provides the court with a report that includes a custody recommendation. The judge takes all this into account when making a custody decision. Whether parents can view the report varies by state, but they may always call the evaluator to testify at trial.
Evaluators must have had no prior involvement with the family, and they can be psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, counselors or therapists. Some are employed by the court, while others work in private practice.
While similar to an investigation by a guardian ad litem, a custody evaluation focuses more on mental health.
Friend of the court
The friend of the court (FOC) is a person or office providing assistance to the court.
Friends of the court in Texas ensure parents follow court orders, FOCs in Michigan have additional responsibilities, such as helping parents settle disputes and recommending orders to the judge.
In other places, friend of the court is a more general term for someone appointed to help with a case, usually by conducting an investigation.
Guardian ad litem (best interest attorney)
A guardian ad litem (GAL) is a lawyer, a mental health professional or a trained advocate who looks out for the best interest of the child. Called a best interest attorney in some states, they act as a witness for the court, investigating the family and submitting a report that can be used in trial.
To begin their investigation, the guardian ad litem interviews the parents and child. In addition, they conduct home studies, and they often speak with people who know the family, including relatives, friends, teachers and medical providers.
At the end of the investigation, the GAL submits a report with a custody recommendation to the court. The judge considers the report along with all other evidence when making a custody decision.
In some states, attorneys (or self-representing parents) can question the GAL during the trial. If the GAL is exempt from cross-examination in your state, you can still address your issues with the report to the judge.
A GAL's investigation is similar to the inquiry a custody evaluator does but places less emphasis on mental health.
Note that Virginia guardians ad litem also take on the responsibilities of an attorney for the child (explained above).
Licensed legal paraprofessional (licensed paralegal practitioner)
This new position has been created in a few U.S. states, like Arizona and Utah, to provide more affordable legal help.
Licensed legal paraprofessionals (LLPs) can represent clients and provide legal advice in certain types of cases, including family law cases.
They do not usually have Juris Doctor degrees like lawyers, but they must pass an exam and meet requirements for education and/or time working at a law firm.
Because they are not lawyers, they face some restrictions on what they can do. In Utah, they can represent people in mediation but not in court. In Arizona, they can do both but can't handle appeals or cases with certain complexities (e.g., division of commercial property in a divorce).
Mediators guide parents toward compromises during mediation. As neutral parties, they focus on the best interest of the child.
They either work independently or as part of the court's staff. Some mediators specialize in areas like LGBTQ custody or divorcing with complex finances.
If parents reach an agreement during mediation, the mediator writes up a document the parents can use to settle. Certain mediators in California make recommendations to the court when parents can't agree.
Although many courts require parents to attend mediation, others only encourage it.
Parenting coordinator (child custody special master)
A parenting coordinator (PC) helps combative parents communicate, defuse tension and make day-to-day child rearing decisions. Also called a child custody special master, this professional is usually trained as a mediator, mental health professional or family lawyer.
Sometimes, the coordinator serves as a tie-breaker and makes a decision for parents who can't agree. When parents start working with a PC, they choose if and when to allow this.
Parents can choose to hire a PC in some states, but more commonly, the court orders parents to work with one.
PCs usually work with families who already have final custody orders, to help them avoid returning to court. However, PCs sometimes get involved earlier to help parents settle. (In certain states, when parents don't reach a settlement, the PC gives the judge a custody recommendation.)
Children may meet with a PC to give input. Parents who have had violent relationships can meet with their PC one at a time.
Staff attorney (court attorney)
The staff attorney (also known as a court attorney) is a lawyer who helps the judge by conducting legal research and writing decisions. Staff attorneys do not have the authority to hear cases, but some courts allow them to oversee conferences with parents and attorneys.
The professionals working on your case have many tools on hand. One of them is available to parents, too: Custody X Change.
With a parenting plan template, custody and visitation calendars, a digital journal and beyond, the Custody X Change app makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to custody.
Take advantage of the technology the professionals use, and get what's best for your children.
Bring calm to co‑parenting. Agree on a schedule and plan. Be prepared with everything documented.