What is a custody evaluation?
A custody evaluation is a process in which a mental health professional interviews, observes, and evaluates you, your ex, and your children. At the end of the evaluation process, they give their professional recommendation about custody arrangements to the judge. These recommendations are not legal decisions. The judge could choose to completely go against the recommendation, follow it exactly, or change it just a little. However, it is likely that the judge will place a good amount of stock in the evaluator’s recommendation.
Custody evaluations can be court ordered or requested by one or both parents. They are meant to about ninety days. However, they can last longer if one or both parties are not cooperating. They can be quite expensive, ranging from a couple thousand to many thousands of dollars. During the process the evaluator will have several sessions with everyone involved separately, and that includes children. They will also observe you interacting with your children, either at home or in their office. They will do the same to your ex. Most likely, the will do a home evaluation as well to make sure you have adequate living conditions for your children.
Should I request a custody evaluation?
It is probably in your best interest, at least financially, to avoid a custody evaluation. In addition to the cost, it inherently takes decision power out of the hands of the parents and into the hands of a third party. If at all possible, try to come to a reasonable and fair agreement with your ex about child custody. Consider mediation and compromise if you are not seeing eye to eye.
If, however, your ex is demanding that they have a large portion of custody or sole custody and are falsely accusing you of being an unfit parent, then requesting a custody evaluation may benefit you.
If you are looking for 50/50 custody and your ex doesn’t agree, then a custody evaluation will most likely be in your favor. Evaluators usually recommend as close to 50/50 custody arrangements as possible.
Always consult with a custody attorney before deciding to request an evaluation.
If you go through a custody evaluation, here are some important things to keep in mind.
The sole purpose of the evaluation is for the mental health professional to develop an opinion about what is in the best interest of the child. Unlike your lawyer, they are not on your side. They are also not against you. Remember that their job is to make as unbiased of an assessment as they possibly can.
When going through the evaluation process, do not bash your ex to the evaluator or your children! As hard as this can be, save it for someone else. This will always reflect poorly on you. Also, never coach your children on what to say.
If you are in this process, you probably have concerns about your ex-spouse and how they parent. That is perfectly fine as long as you address them as concerns. This is the difference between saying, “My ex is evil and shouldn’t be around kids!” and “I’m concerned because after living with my ex for many years, I know that he/she likes to drink heavily on the weekends. I don’t want this to have a detrimental effect on our kids.” Once you have told the evaluator and they understand your point, do not keep coming back to it over and over. This evaluation process is really your chance to show that you are a good parent. It is not your chance to prove that the other parent is a bad or unfit parent. If you try to do that, you will only make things worse for yourself.
Be honest with the evaluator. Do tell them your strengths as a parent. Also admit your weaknesses. If you are unwilling to do this, they may sense that you are not being transparent. Your goal should not be to prove that you are a perfect parent. Your goal is to show that you love your kids and have their best interests at heart. You want to give them the impression that you understand your weaknesses and have specific plans on how to improve.
During the home evaluation, do your best to make sure it is clean and safe. At the same time, don’t give the impression you are trying to pull the wool over the evaluator’s eyes. It is natural for a home with children in it to not be sparkling clean in every corner. You do not have to have homemade bread baking in the oven or matching furniture. They want to see that your home is safe, hygienic, and your children are loved and comfortable there.
The best advice is this: Try to be the best, most loving parent you can be. Then let the evaluator see that. If you can do this, chances are that the evaluator will be fair to you and your desires for custody of your children.