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 for child custody, 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, a lawyer 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

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 evaluations 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 evaluations 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.

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.

Is a custody evaluation worth it?

A custody evaluation can certainly be worth the money and stress if you're confident that it would uncover important information for the judge.

If your child's other parent has serious issues that you need to prove to the court — substance abuse, narcissistic personality disorder, neglectful parenting, etc. — then you should seriously consider requesting an evaluation.

On the other hand, an evaluation would probably not be "worth it" in your mind if there's a chance it could uncover information that does not make you look like a fit parent.

If you're on the fence about requesting an evaluation, consider a brief assessment or focused-issue evaluation, which are each cheaper than a full evaluation. You can speak to a lawyer or divorce coach for guidance.

Evaluations are not necessary in most cases because parents manage to reach a settlement.

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, lawyers 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.

Signs of a bad custody evaluation

Most custody evaluations go smoothly because evaluators undergo thorough training. Before you accuse an evaluator of acting improperly, consider seriously how your own feelings about the case might be affecting your judgment.

If you do have a bad custody evaluation, speak to your judge during a hearing. Some states allow parents to request another evaluation with a different evaluator. You can also report the evaluator to the appropriate state licensing board, e.g., the Board of Psychology.

These may be signs of a bad custody evaluation:

  • The evaluator spends much less time with one parent.
  • They ignore relevant information.
  • They consider issues not meant to be part of the evaluation.
  • Their report lacks evidence or care.

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 evaluations.

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.

Child custody evaluation tips

  • Prepare with a lawyer 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.

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