By Jennifer Weisberg Millner, Esq., Stark & Stark
When parents can’t agree on a parenting time schedule, the court will most likely need an expert opinion to help decide on a custody plan that is in the best interests of the child or children. The way the expert comes to an opinion is through a custody evaluation, and parents may not understand what such an evaluation entails when they sign on for it. Oftentimes hindsight is 20/20, and parents wish they hadn’t put the kids through the custody evaluation process, just to obtain a schedule that has a few extra overnights with the child.
Divorce or separation is no doubt a heart wrenching time for any parent. In addition to the relationship breaking down, and the emotional toll that takes, the matter worsens when a parent realizes that they may not have as much time with the kids as he or she did before. Moreover, the two parents may have very different parenting styles, and it is hard to accept the fact that “different” does not translate into “bad” or “wrong.” It is particularly tough for a parent who has taken on the majority of the child rearing during the relationship to now have to contemplate sharing physical custody. Our Legislature has declared a presumption that both parents have an equal right to custody of the children.
In New Jersey, the courts send parents to custody mediation before an evaluation occurs. When there is a bona fide custody dispute, and the parties have gone to mediation unsuccessfully, an expert (usually be a forensic psychologist with experience in custody disputes) is needed.
So what happens when you hire an expert to conduct a best interest evaluation?
1. Determine Who the Expert Will Be. It must be determined whether the evaluator will be court appointed, jointly hired, or engaged by one parent. Sometimes the court will appoint an expert, and the parties do not have a choice in the selection of the expert. If the court appoints the expert, and either of the parties do not like the conclusion, that parent has the ability to hire their own expert.
Other times, the parties will agree to use one, neutral expert to conduct the evaluation. If one party does not agree with the outcome, the ability to hire another expert is sometimes limited. Finally, the parties can each decide to retain their own expert.
It needs to be noted, however, that regardless of who hires the expert, and whether the expert is court appointed, joint, or only hired by one side, the expert is required to conduct the evaluation in accordance with the guidelines of the American Psychological Association for Custody Evaluations. One of these guidelines directs the evaluator to act independently, even though hired by one party, so you can’t simply hire an expert to espouse your view.
2. Parents Should Prepare to Pay a Pretty Penny. Custody evaluations cost, on average, $15,000-$20,000. Some are even more, depending on how complex the case is, and how many collateral contacts (i.e. friends, family, teachers, day care providers, etc.) the expert needs to speak with in order to form an opinion. Additionally, if there are substantial documents that the expert has to review, this can also drive up the cost.
3. Each Parent Meets One-On-One with the Expert. Typically, the expert meets with each parent alone at least twice, and more likely three times. During the first meeting, the evaluator usually administers personality tests to the parent. This test is usually the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory 2 (MMPI-2), which is the most widely used psychometric test for measuring adult psychopathology in the world.
The test generally takes an hour and a half to complete and it is very difficult for the test taker to “fake” any answers. This test will let the evaluator know if the test-taking parent exhibits characteristics of any personality disorders that may affect that person’s parenting of the child or children. The second, and possibly third, meetings will be ones in which the parent speaks to the expert about why he or she is better suited to have more custodial time with the child. Each parent can provide the expert with any documents or other evidence that he or she feels should be taken into consideration.
4. The Expert Meets the Child or Children. At this stage, parents really have to carefully consider their positions when going through the process. The expert will want to see the child interact with each parent separately at least once. Most often, this happens in the experts office, and then again in the parent’s residence. The child does this with each parent, so we are up to four possible times the child has to interact with the expert. Then, most experts want to have the opportunity to speak to the child alone at least once.
5. Finally, Prepare to Wait. There are a limited number of evaluators who engage in this type of work, and the good ones are busy. It often takes almost a year for an evaluation to be completed. This is a long time for parents and children to wait.
The stress of a custody evaluation on a child is significant. Absent extraordinary circumstances, in which child abuse, substance abuse, or domestic violence are present, children love both parents and hate having to be put in a position in which they feel like they have to choose, let alone speak to a complete stranger about the turmoil that is going on in their lives. To put a child through what is possibly six hours with an evaluator is oftentimes traumatic in itself, and parents have to ask themselves what they are really trying to accomplish.
Unquestionably, custody evaluations are necessary in many instances. However, before any parent goes down this path, he or she should engage in serious soul searching as to whether or not an agreement can be reached with regard to parenting time.
For more information about this, or other, family law topics, please contact Jennifer Weisberg Millner, Esq. at 609-945-7608 or visit www.stark-stark.com.