In family court, if there is a dispute over child custody, the court will often use the findings and observations of a custody evaluator to guide and support the court’s ruling. Commonly, the custody evaluator is a neutral third party agreed upon by the parties, or appointed by the court (or both). It is also an option for a party (or each party) to have their own expert.
The custody evaluator will meet with the parties, meet the child(ren), observe each party with the child(ren), and correspond with collateral contacts, such as other family members, the child’s teachers, the child’s primary doctor, and any other third parties who can provide relevant information regarding the child’s best interests. The evaluator will ultimately produce a custody report that can be offered into evidence for the family court’s consideration in rendering a decision.
The fact is, the custody evaluation is a worst-case (or at least, worse-case) scenario. It takes many months, can be heart-wrenching (for the parents and the children) and is enormously expensive. Parents are well advised to pursue mediation, early neutral evaluation, a moderated settlement conference, or the appointment of a parenting consultant. These models provide the parties with insightful recommendations and, in some situations, binding decisions to bring a custody dispute to resolution. All of them are voluntary, and cannot be mandatorily imposed on the parties. And ultimately, both parties have the right to resort to a court trial as a last resort. But almost all family court judges will themselves call out the advantages of resolutions that occur outside of court, and discourage the parties from leaving the decision to the court, and the trial process.