What is a Custody Evaluation? [Part One]

In earlier blogs I discussed what a parent can expect during child custody mediation, both private mediation and court connected mediation. Both scenarios, while nuanced, are quite straight forward. What happens if you are involved in a high-conflict child custody case and the court orders a custody evaluation? What does the evaluation cost? And how long do they take? I hope to answer these questions in this blog. In my next blog, I will discuss what to expect from a custody evaluation, how you can prepare and some of the reason a court will order a custody evaluation.

In some high conflict cases, California judges will order a “Child Custody Evaluation”, also referred to as a “Psychological Evaluation” or a “730 Evaluation” (this is because the expert performing the evaluation is appointed pursuant to Evidence Code §730). I will refer to it as a custody evaluation in this blog, but all of the terms are used interchangeably and mean the same thing.

A custody evaluation can be requested by one party, can be agreed to by the parties (stipulation) or can be ordered by a Judge on his/her own motion. However the order is made, the first step will be to decide who will perform the evaluation. The evaluation must be conducted by an individual who meets certain qualifications which are laid out in detail in Family Code §3111.

Most lawyers will hesitate to admit it, but we have very strong opinions on evaluators (I know the opposite is true) and we have preferences depending on the case. Generally, the court will order one party to provide the name of three experts and the other side will choose from that list. It’s a version of “you cut, I choose.” Each attorney has a different approach on which side they prefer (I certainly have a preference) so it is important to discuss this with your attorney. Also each evaluator has a different style so it is important to discuss all the facts of your case (including sensitive information that could be discovered during the evaluation) with your attorney before the evaluator is chosen.

Once the evaluator is chosen, the parties will need to discuss how the cost of the evaluation will be paid. Depending on the financial circumstances of the parties, the cost can be split equally or borne by one party. If only one party is paying the cost, there needs to be a decision whether the court will retain jurisdiction reallocate that cost. That means, once the evaluation is complete the court can decide how to allocate the total cost of the evaluation. These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Custody evaluations are expensive; there is no way around that. The typical evaluation will cost between $10,000 and $25,000 dollars. I have seen them completed for as little as $5,000 (though this is rare) and I have seen them cost nearly $100,000 (those evaluations are equally as rare).

Custody evaluations will take between 3-8 months to complete, with the average evaluation taking around 6 months. An evaluator I know and respect once told me that a properly conducted and well-reasoned evaluation cannot be completed in less than 6 months. Anything less than 6 months, according to the evaluator I know, will result in mistakes or misinterpreted data. Some evaluations take longer than that. The longest evaluation I was involved with took 18 months from the first visit to the issuance of a report. (It’s worth noting the parties in that case ultimately agreed to an equal parenting plan at the end of the 18 months).

Custody evaluations can play an important role in your child custody case and the results of the evaluation can have long lasting effects on the relationship between you and your children. That is why it is important to consult with a qualified child custody litigator prior to starting the process.

We understand that this is a sensitive situation that could greatly affect your family and your relationship with your children, and our team can provide you with the caring and outstanding legal counsel you need and deserve. If you would like to discuss your rights under California’s child custody laws, we encourage you to contact us as soon as possible.

Nancy J. Bickford, a Certified Family Law Specialist (CFLS) is also a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Please call 858-793-8884 to understand how she can help your child custody battle begin and end with keeping your kids where they belong: With you.


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