Many divorcing parents resolve questions about custody and visitation without litigation, but sometimes, when the case goes to court, the judge requires a child custody evaluation. The evaluations can be very expensive. Often they involve experts and professionals and the production of lengthy reports that tax the ability of people of modest means to pay.
The cost depends on whether the evaluation is court ordered or voluntary. If the court orders the evaluation using the county’s evaluator, the parties pay a much lower hourly rate than using a private evaluator. A court custody evaluation costs between $1,000 and $2,500, compared with $10,000 or more for a private evaluation.
A custody evaluator is a mental health professional, usually a psychologist, with special training and experience in reviewing family situations and making recommendations to judges about what custody regimes would be in the best interests of the children. The evaluator prepares for the judge to review, giving his or her opinion about the best custody and visitation arrangement for the family. The evaluator’s recommendation is not binding on the court, but as a rule, judges give it a lot of weight—it’s the only neutral information they have about the family situation and dynamics.
Almost all evaluators interview both spouses as many as three times (interviews will be planned, not unannounced visits) and interview each child once or twice. The evaluator spends time with each child with each parent, to observe parental interactions (at the evaluator’s office, the home, or both) and gathers information from teachers or caregivers, doctors, therapists, and other witnesses, and court records.
Many evaluators test both children and parents. Some do the testing themselves and some (including a guardian ad litem who is a lawyer, not a mental health professional) use another professional.