How Child Custody Evaluations Work

A custody evaluation, also known as a parenting evaluation, occurs when the parties to a custody case are evaluated by a professional in relation to their relative parenting skills and ability.

The evaluation is performed by a mental health professional, usually a psychologist. In addition to interviews with the parents, a custody evaluation may involve additional steps, such as psychological testing, observing the parents as they interact with their children, interviews with third parties such as teachers and relatives, and review of medical or psychological records.

The goal of the evaluation process is for the court to obtain a neutral report regarding what custody outcome will be in the best interest of the parties' minor children. A child custody evaluation should be a neutral process. The evaluator should not have a prior counseling relationship with either or both parents. Ideally, the evaluator will be approved by both parties or, if they cannot agree, appointed by the court.

When Will a Court Order a Child Custody Evaluation

A court may order a child custody evaluation when parents do not agree to a resolution of a custody dispute. Although the circumstances under which a court may order a custody evaluation vary from state to state, evaluations are most likely to be ordered when a parent has raised serious issues about the other parent's ability to act as an appropriate caregiver for minor children. Parents may also agree to participate in a custody evaluation, with the results to be submitted to the custody court.

Once a court orders parents to participate in a child custody evaluation, the parents are expected to comply with its order. Compliance includes:

  • Making any required payments toward the cost of the evaluation,
  • Scheduling appointments with the evaluator, and
  • Attending scheduled appointments.

Failure to comply with the court's order will reflect badly on a non-compliant parent, and can potentially result in a parent's being held in contempt of court.

Grounds for a Child Custody Evaluation

Allegations that might result in a court-ordered evaluation include,

  • Child Abuse or Neglect - Allegations of child abuse or neglect by a parent, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

  • Domestic Violence - Even when not directed against a child, or committed in the presence of a child, acts of domestic violence raise mental health issues that are relevant to parenting.

  • Substance Abuse - Allegations that a parent's competence or ability to be a safe parent is impaired by the use of or addiction to alcohol, medication, or recreational drugs.

  • Mental Illness - Allegations that a parent has

Allegations may be raised against one or both parents. Absent highly unusual circumstances a custody evaluation will be of both parents. Evaluation may also occur by agreement of the parties, although given the cost of a typical child custody evaluation it is not an expense that most parents would choose to incur. However, if parents cannot otherwise agree as to how to resolve their custody case and are willing to abide by the result, a custody evaluation will normally be considerably less expensive than a custody trial.

Custody Mediation vs. Evaluation

When parents believe that they may be able to agree to the terms of a custody order, but have not been able to reach the agreement without assistance, they may seek the assistance of a child custody mediator. A mediator 's role is different from that of a custody evaluator:

  • A mediator's goal is to help the parents reach a mutually acceptable resolution of their custody case. An evaluator's role is to obtain information and make a recommendation as to an outcome that is in the best interest of the children, even if one or both parents disagree with the recommendation.

  • A mediator may be consulted by the parents without any involvement by a court, and the results may be confidential. An evaluator is appointed by a court, the evaluator's report is shared with the court, and the evaluator's recommendation and testimony may become part of the public record.

  • Mediation is rarely viable in cases that involve domestic violence or a serious imbalance of power between the parties. Custody evaluation does not require the parents to have a working relationship, and may be helpful in high conflict cases.

Who Pays for a Child Custody Evaluation

Payment for custody evaluation depends upon state law and policy, as well as the practices of the court in which the custody case is being decided.

  • Division of Costs - Some courts divide the cost of the evaluation equally between the parents, or allocate the cost based upon the parents' relative incomes.

  • Requesting Party - Some courts may order the parent who requests a custody evaluation to pay for its entire cost.

  • State Funds - In some states, the cost of a court-ordered evaluation is paid with state funds, although some costs may ultimately be allocated to the parents.

Who Performs a Custody Evaluation

References to a custody evaluation normally contemplate an investigation and evaluation performed by a mental health professional, most often a psychologist. However, sometimes a court may order an evaluation to be performed by a guardian ad litem, a person appointed by the court to perform an investigation and prepare a report for the benefit of the court, or may order both an evaluation by a mental health professional and an investigation by a guardian ad litem. A guardian ad litem may be a lawyer, but may not be required to have any specific qualifications or credentials.

When conducting a custody evaluation, a mental health professional is less likely to perform in-person investigations of the parties' homes or to meet with third party witnesses in person than a guardian ad litem, although such actions are possible. A guardian ad litem may perform a more active investigation, involving interviews of third parties, home visits, and other collection of evidence. As a guardian ad litem is not likely to be qualified to perform a psychological evaluation of the parties, unless a psychological evaluation has already been ordered, a guardian ad litem may ask the court to order a psychological evaluation of the parties to supplement his or her own investigation.

What Happens at a Custody Evaluation

When a custody evaluation is ordered by a court, the parties are ordered to contact the evaluator and schedule appointments.

  • The evaluator will meet with the parents separately, and may also meet separately with the children.
  • The evaluator will want to assess the entire family unit, including the proposed family units of each parent.
  • The evaluator will usually want to meet with all members of the parents' existing or proposed households, including any other people who live with a parent or who are expected to move in with a parent.
  • Either before or after meeting with the family, the evaluator may contact knowledgeable witnesses to learn information about the parents and their parenting skills and abilities. Information may be collected from people including teachers, therapists, social workers, doctors, employers and caregivers.
  • The evaluator may administer psychological tests upon the parents that reflect each parent's temperament and parenting ability. The nature and extent of testing may vary depending upon the issues of concern that led to the evaluation, as well as the policies of the state or court and the impressions of the evaluator.

As part of the evaluation process, the custody evaluator will question the parents about the history of their relationship and of the family unit. The evaluator will seek information including:

  • Past and present parenting arrangements and division of parental duties;
  • Any changes in the parenting arrangements that have occurred in the past, and why those changes occurred;
  • The history and extent of parent-child contact for each parent;
  • The parents' relationship history, from when the parents first met through their break-up;
  • Any history of counseling, including marital and family therapy;
  • The history of each child, including information from each of the child's stages of life;
  • The role of extended family in the children's lives;
  • The presence of any half-siblings or step-siblings in the household;
  • The parents' employment history and work schedules;
  • The current living arrangements of the parents and children, including the identity of all members of each household;
  • Any history of mental illness;
  • Any history of addiction or substance abuse, and subsequent counseling or treatment; and
  • Any history of child abuse or domestic violence, and who was involved.

Once the evaluator has gathered information from the parents, children and any witnesses, the evaluator will look for important differences between the parents' narratives. Significant differences that relate to parenting history and caregiving are likely to be of particular import. If the parents share different histories of the development of their relationship, their role as parents, or how or why their relationship came to an end, those differences may factor into the evaluator's assessment of the parents. Similarly, if a parent gives a different account of an important fact or event than a witness, the evaluator is likely to consider how and why that discrepancy arose.

The evaluator is likely to emphasize recent history over past events, particularly where the parents appear to have overcome past problems or difficulties. However, past issues may reflect a pattern of behavior or conduct that is of concern to the evaluator. The evaluator will form an impression of each parent, including that parent's:

  • Ability to empathize;
  • Ability to recognize their own role in the breakdown of their relationship with the other parent;
  • Ability to perceive their own role in any past or present conflict with the other parent;
  • Ability to focus on the present, rather than dwelling on ancient history;
  • Patterns of behavior that may affect their parenting ability;
  • Patterns in relationships that may recur in new relationships, or in the parent-child relationship;
  • Capacity and willingness to be an effective parent; and
  • Ability and willingness to work effectively with the other parent.

The evaluator will gather information about the parents' homes and proposed living arrangements, including the size of the home, sleeping arrangements, safety issues, and whether the children's needs are being met. If the homes are visited, the evaluator will consider the home's safety, cleanliness, the children's bedrooms, whether the children have appropriate clothes and toys, whether there is appropriate food available in the home, and any sign of substance abuse.

What Does the Evaluator Report to the Court

Unlike a court proceeding, the custody evaluation process is informal.

  • Evaluation normally occurs at the evaluator's offices.
  • The evaluator does not take sworn testimony, and no official record is made of the proceedings – that is, the evaluation is not normally electronically recorded and no transcript is prepared.

Once the evaluation is complete, the evaluator prepares a report that is returned to the parties and the court. The report will normally describe the evaluator's impressions of the parents and their psychological health, as well as the manner in which they relate to each other and to the child. The evaluator will summarize any information or evidence that was submitted for consideration, that is deemed relevant to the evaluation.

The evaluator will then make a recommendation on the custody issues that need to be decided, potentially including sole vs. joint custody, who should be the primary physical custodian, when and how visitation or parenting time is to occur, and any special issues that relate to custody such as how reunification might occur if a parent has been absent from the children's lives for an extended period of time.

Although a custody recommendation is not a substitute for the court's own evaluation of the facts and evidence, a custody evaluation may be highly influential upon the judge. The parties may object to the content of the report and any recommendations it makes. The formality of the objection process depends to a significant degree upon state law, and the extent to which the report or recommendation create a presumptive outcome for the custody case. Although the report is normally confidential, if litigation continues the evaluator's recommendation may become part of the public record, as may the evaluator's testimony if the evaluator is called as a witness at a hearing or trial.

When the parties are represented by counsel, in some states the report is provided to counsel pursuant to an order that limits the parties' direct access to its content. The report contains personal, private information, and should be held in confidence. In some jurisdictions the report includes a recommendation of a custody arrangement that the evaluator deems to be in the best interest of the minor children. In a small number of jurisdictions the recommendation may be prepared separately and submitted to the court only if the initial report does not result in the parties' settling their custody case.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 6, 2018.