In divorce or paternity cases, custody evaluations are common. They are provided for in the paternity and divorce statutes, as well as local court rules and discovery rules. A trial court judge has the inherent discretion and power to order a custody evaluation. In simple terms, a custody evaluation is nothing more than a trained professional interviewing the adults and children and reviewing materials they provide to make a written report to the trial court of what is in the children’s best interests. However, there are three things you must know to make the most of a custody evaluation. These are the topic of this blog post.
The scope or purpose of a child custody evaluation are somewhat misleading terms. These evaluations can be very broad and cover who should have legal and physical custody and what parenting time schedule would work best for the children. This is common in simple to complex divorces. More often than not, a custody evaluation is used for much narrower purposes. For instance, where parents cannot agree on legal custody matters (health care decisions, religious upbringing, or school choices) a custody evaluator may render an opinion on what is in the children’s best interests. Sometimes this is split between parents with one making religious decisions with the other making health care choices and the schooling divided, with both parents jointly making the decision. The takeaway is the parties should be very specific in what they ask the court to order the custody evaluation to address. If not, significant issues may be left with just minimal attention by the evaluator.
Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of child custody evaluations is who performs them. Everyone from attorneys to Ph.D. forensic clinical psychologists conducts custody evaluations. This is a key decision—who you select or agree to with opposing counsel. In a “normal” case where the parents disagree, a specific skill set may not be necessary and any of these evaluators may do a good job as a neutral to make an evaluation and recommendations to the court of what is in the children’s best interests. However, many cases have very clear dynamics that are hard to decipher and create high conflict. The reasons for this may range from underlying mental illness of a parent to the desire to merely “hurt” the other parent for perceived wrongs in the relationship. In these cases, a more skilled evaluator is normally prudent. For instance, only forensic clinical psychologists may legally perform certain psychological testing that may be the key to making a best interests recommendation to the court. An example would be testing for underlying anger issues that impact the relationship and parenting. Thus, it is key to determine the right evaluator for the issues operational in the case.
Lastly, no matter how thorough the evaluation and some take months to complete and result in a lengthy report, the judge has the final say. Under the constitution, a judge is the ultimate arbitrator of a child’s best interests. What this means is a judge cannot delegate this power to an evaluator as this is an unlawful delegation of judicial power. The judge is the one who ultimately determines what is in a child’s best interests. Therefore, a report may be challenged by any party and rejected by the court. It is just a tool to aid the court. Normally, courts follow some or all recommendations of the evaluator, but if the evidence dictates something else is in the child’s best interests, he or she can make a different order. This is decided law by the Indiana appellate courts.
Now you know the most important aspects of child custody evaluations. This blog is written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle domestic relations cases of all types and practice in all Indiana counties. This blog is written for general educational purposes. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.