When children are involved in a divorce, it raises the stress level for everyone who is participating, including the judge. No one wants to make the wrong decision when it comes to children.
Every state has its own laws regarding custody in a divorce. However, many laws are based on a presumption that both parents are entitled to shared custody of their children. That seems to make sense, right? Why shouldn't mom and dad have shared custody? Isn't that what intact families have? Why should a divorced family be different?
Well, let's be honest for a second. Divorced families are different than intact, married families. In the former scenario, the parents are living apart, and therein lies the challenges when it comes to children.
There has to be an arrangement made for how the parents will spend time with their children post-divorce. And of course, the big question is—where will the children live?
If the parents don't agree on how to handle custody and parenting time post-divorce, that's when the courts intervene and take control. In contested divorces, it's common for one or both parents to make allegations against the other parent as to why he or she should have primary custody. Sometimes, these allegations have merit; but sometimes, they don't, and that's the unfortunate aspect of dealing with custody in divorce.
The judge has to make a decision on whom to believe, but this requires objective evidence. How does one obtain such evidence? By using a custody evaluation, that's how.
The court can either appoint a custody evaluator for your case, or the parents can agree and choose one themselves. Either way, a custody evaluation is expensive—about $10,000 expensive. So, before you ask for one, and before you make the court order one, make sure you have the money to fund it. Remember, it's your assets; what you use during the divorce, you won't have to divide when it's over.
If you do end up getting a custody evaluation, here are some tips to make sure it's worthwhile and you come away with the best result possible:
Pick a good expert.
This one can be tricky, but if you and your soon-to-be-ex can communicate somewhat amicably, you can preempt the court from choosing a custody expert for you. If custody is an issue in your divorce, you might not be able to get out of having to get a custody evaluation. The court either appoints the person who conducts the evaluation, or you can agree on the expert. It's always better to keep control and choose someone you both think is fair and experienced, but if you can't reach an agreement, the court will choose and you will be stuck with it.
The custody expert will schedule appointments, both separately and together, with you and the children. This is not the opportunity to bitch about your ex's inability to parent and his/her fitness to be with the children. Focus on showing the expert how good of a parent you are and don't give him/her a reason to write a report to the judge that disparages you or makes you look bad. Focus on you and your children, not the other parent. The rest will take care of itself.
Don't sabotage the process.
This overlaps a bit with number two. People often focus on the wrong things in these evaluations, such as the other parent. Don't fall into that trap. Custody experts are tuned in to identifying these tactics and will consider it when they report back to the court. These evaluations are expensive. Don't do anything to give the other parent an argument to throw out the findings, especially if they are favorable to you.
Have clear expectations from the beginning.
One of the frequent complaints I hear from parents who have custody evaluations is that they didn't know how the process worked and were not prepared for the visits. Call your expert's office and, if you can't speak directly with him/her, someone on staff should be able to provide guidance on how the process works. You want to feel comfortable and understand what is going to happen so there are no surprises. You will be anxious enough, so make it as easy as it can be.
Address problems ASAP.
The worst thing you can do when involved in a custody evaluation is to wait until the end to bring up issues. It may be too late at that point. If you have a problem with the expert, bring it up directly when it happens. Voice your concern, but make sure you do so in a non-accusatory manner, so it's not held against you. If you are not happy with how the expert is conducting the evaluation, you may have to file a motion with the court to address it. Whatever you do, don't wait to handle it later.