Custody evaluations, guardians ad litem, early neutral evaluators, parenting consultants and parenting time expeditors. They are all objective and impartial. Here are the distinctions:
Custody evaluators are appointed by the court or contracted with privately by the parties. The evaluator will meet with the parents, meet with or observe the child (depending on how old the child is) with each parent, and speak with collateral contacts to arrive at recommendations for what is in the child’s best interests. The custody evaluator issues a written report that can be entered as evidence in a contested custody hearing, or used as a basis for negotiated a stipulated parenting plan. The evaluation typically takes 90 to 150 days to complete.
Guardians ad litem are appointed by the court to assess the child’s best interests in a manner similar to custody evaluations, but in many counties they are limited to children in particularly troubling circumstances, such as abuse or neglect. The guardian ad litem’s process can be shorter than a custody evaluation, particularly if the court requests interim recommendations from the guardian. The family court judge may enlist the services of the guardian ad litem to assist in determining both temporary and permanent custody arrangements. The guardian’s recommendations may be the basis for the court’s decision, or a custody stipulation.
Early neutral evaluations have the potential to be shorter terms than other processes. The evaluators (one male, one female) meet with the parents, and typically do not meet the child. Rather than communicating with collateral contacts, the evaluators attempt to facilitate an agreement based upon what the parents themselves raise as concerns about the child and the other parent. The evaluation process transpires early in the proceedings, and is not shared with the family court; so if the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the case will typically proceed to a full-blown custody evaluation.
Parenting consultants are appointed by the parties, and approved by the court, but are not appointed by the court. Typically, they make decisions
(rather than recommendations) which are binding on the parties unless reversed by the family court. As long as a party is satisfied with the parenting consultant’s decision, the process can streamline the resolution of a dispute.
Parenting time expeditors are appointed by the court, and have decision-making authority, but the scope of that authority is narrower than the other neutrals mentioned above. Issues other than parenting time fall outside the scope of a parenting time expeditor. The PTE’s decision is binding on the parties, unless one of the parties seeks review by the family court.