The judge in your divorce case can't come into your home and sit down with your family to quietly observe its dynamics. Even if he could, his training is in law, not necessarily family relations or child psychology. If you need him to make a custody decision as part of your divorce, he may reach out to an individual or individuals trained in such areas, asking for guidance. This is where a custody evaluation comes in.
How It Works
If you and your spouse are not battling over custody, there's no need for an evaluation as part of your divorce proceedings. An evaluation is a forensics tool to help the judge get to the bottom of your case and uncover information. The information is collected by a professional and based on an unbiased point of view. In some states, such as Ohio, a custody evaluation involves more than one professional, usually a psychologist and a guardian ad litem to protect the best interests of your children in the divorce. Other states, such as Arizona, may use only a psychologist.
If You Don't Cooperate
If the court orders a custody evaluation and you elect not to cooperate, it probably won't bode well for you. Not only will you earn the disfavor of the judge, but you won't have a chance to present your side of the story to the evaluator. The evaluator would be working blind, without an opportunity to witness your interactions with your children. He will want to meet with them as well as you, both separately and together. You'll be asked to provide names and contact information for collateral references -- people who have pertinent information regarding your family, such as your children's teachers, or even other family members. The evaluator might do psychological testing to gather information about your respective parenting styles. A home visit or study may be involved as well.
The cost of a custody evaluation can run to several thousand dollars. The judge orders payment terms, sometimes dividing the cost 50-50 between parents, or more disproportionately if one parent earns significantly more than the other. If you request a custody evaluation because you have concerns about your spouse's parenting abilities -- rather than the court ordering one on its own -- you may be entirely responsible for the evaluator's fee.
The Judge's Decision
When the evaluation is completed, a report is submitted to the judge, detailing the professional's findings. The report usually includes a recommendation for custody terms as well. The judge may or may not base his decision entirely on the report, but it's unlikely that he would make a ruling that greatly deviates from the evaluator's opinion. You or your spouse might want the evaluator to testify at trial, and this is usually permitted. Often, you and your spouse can meet with the evaluator before the report is written up and submitted to the court. If you know how the judge is likely to rule based on the report, this might help you and your spouse negotiate a parenting plan of your own. You're entitled to do this, even at the 11th hour. Some states, such as California, allow you to file a formal objection to the evaluator's report if you feel that it's inaccurate.