How to Prepare for a Child Custody Evaluation

When parents cannot agree on how their child custody case should be resolved, or where one or both parents make serious allegations about the fitness or competence of the other parent, a court may order a child custody evaluation. Custody evaluations are particularly likely in custody disputes that involve allegations of child abuse or neglect, domestic violence, mental illness, addiction or substance abuse.

The goal of the evaluation process is to provide the court with a neutral assessment and evaluation of the family situation, and guidance as to what custodial arrangement will be in the best interest of the children.

By properly preparing for an evaluation, acting appropriately during the evaluation process, and avoiding common mistakes, parents can position themselves for a better outcome.

How to Prepare for a Custody Evaluation

Prior to a custody evaluation, you should organize your case, think through your goals, and prepare a realistic vision of how your custody case should be resolved. If you have a lawyer, you should discuss your thoughts, goals, and strategy with your lawyer.

  • Cooperate With the Evaluator: After the custody evaluation is ordered, schedule appointments with the evaluator. Show up for your appointments on time. Failure to cooperate with the process may be interpreted as the result of poor decision-making skills and bad judgment.

  • Take Some Basic Notes: You will likely benefit from having some notes that help you organize your thoughts, remember to raise important issues, and outline the parenting arrangements that you would find acceptable.

  • Gather Documents: If you are expected to bring any documentation to the evaluation, or believe that certain documents would be helpful, gather your documents and prepare copies that you can leave with the evaluator.

  • Prepare Your Witness List: If the evaluator will be speaking with witnesses about your case, gather the names, addresses and telephone numbers of your prospective witnesses, and make a note of what you believe that they will say that is relevant to child custody and parenting ability, and how they gained that knowledge.

  • Prepare a Custody Proposal: Your primary custody proposal may be your preferred outcome, but it should be realistic, and should consider your history as a parent, your work schedule, and the children's ages, stages of development, and needs. You should consider a broad range of outcomes, from that best case scenario to the worst acceptable outcome. You're not likely to get everything you want from an evaluator's recommendation, so you need to be prepared to discuss compromise.

  • Review the Other Parent's Proposal: If you have access to the other parent's custody proposal prior to the evaluation, review it carefully. If portions of the proposal are not acceptable, be prepared to explain why and, whenever possible, to back up your position with evidence.

  • Improve Yourself: If you have a history of problems that may reflect negatively on your parenting skill, including mental health issues, acts of domestic violence, a criminal record, addiction or substance abuse, be prepared to demonstrate how you have worked to put those issues in the past. Get appropriate counseling, seek drug treatment, attend parenting classes or anger management… whatever it takes.

Work With Your Lawyer

A lawyer can be particularly helpful in preparing for a custody evaluation, as lawyers will be familiar with the process and may have prior experience with the evaluator who will be working on your case. Your lawyer can review your proposed parenting plan to ensure that your goals and expectations are reasonable, help you maintain perspective on the breakdown of your relationship, and help you address negative information about yourself.

Discuss with your lawyer how a court is likely to view unflattering information that is included in a custody evaluation. Keep in mind that the report may be confidential, but in some jurisdictions a recommendation based upon the report may become part of the public record, as will any testimony the evaluator presents in court if called as a witness.

Discussing a Custody Evaluation with Your Children

Most custody evaluations involve at least one meeting between the evaluator and the child or children involved in the custody dispute. Children need to be aware that they are going to meet with an evaluator, but in a way that makes the process seem non-threatening.

Parents should keep things simple:

  • Stick to the Basics: Tell your child that evaluator will be trying to learn about the family and to help you work better with the other parent.

  • Focus on the Truth: Tell your child that the evaluator wants to hear the truth, and that they shouldn't worry about how what other people might think.

  • No Pressure: Don't encourage or pressure the child to make certain statements or disclosures to the evaluator.

If asked, a custody evaluator may have suggestions as to how to discuss the evaluation process with children prior to their meeting the evaluator.

What to Do During a Custody Evaluation

In order to get the best result from a custody evaluation, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Tell the Truth: If the evaluator decides that you are being excessively guarded, deceptive or dishonest, that will factor into the evaluator's report and recommendation.

  • Answer the Questions Asked: Listen carefully to the questions that the evaluator has asked of you, and answer those questions. When you have completed your answer, stop talking and wait for the next question.

  • Focus on Parenting Issues: Focus on facts and actions that relate to parental competence and child safety. Although the history of your relationship with the other parent is likely to come up during a custody evaluation, the evaluator is looking at that history only in relation to child custody issues. Although issues that relate to the breakdown of your relationship may be very important to you, they may not be of much interest to the evaluator.

  • Stay Calm: You will be discussing issues that may trigger an emotional reaction, including anger, sadness and fear, but you need to keep your emotions in check. Angry outbursts and tearfulness may suggest instability and are likely to work against you in the evaluation process.

  • Share a Reasonable Parenting Plan: Describe an optimal but reasonable parenting plan, but show some flexibility and be prepared to discuss how you might compromise within the parameters of acceptable outcomes. Your proposed parenting plan should be grounded in the reality of your situation, including your work obligations, and the age and needs of the children.

  • Follow Up as Promised: If you agree to provide additional information or documentation after meeting the evaluator, provide that information as quickly as you can.

  • Show Flexibility: The evaluator will want to see how you can be flexible and work with others, even when you're getting an outcome that is less than ideal. Show flexibility in your approach to the custody case and the other parent.

What Not to Do During a Custody Evaluation

Don't trip yourself up during a custody evaluation, with any of these common missteps:

  • Don't Make Your Ex- the Bad Guy: Depictions of the other parent as being bad or evil are rarely believable, and generally work against the parent who presents that depiction of the other.

  • Avoid Long Narratives: When providing information or answering questions, don't give long or rambling stories.

  • Don't Confuse Evaluation with Counseling: The evaluator is not providing therapy. Don't vent to the evaluator, don't expect emotional support, and don't ask the evaluator to mediate your disputes with the other parent or to act as an intermediary.

  • Don't Vent: Venting during an evaluation may convey a misleading impression of you and of your mental stability. If you need a sympathetic ear or an outlet for your feelings, find a friend or go to a counselor.

  • Don't Dwell on the Past: Focus on recent, relevant information. If the evaluator wants more information about events from earlier in the history of your relationship, let the evaluator ask about that history.

  • Don't Volunteer Negative Statements: If asked about the other parent, try to answer in an objective manner. You may need to address the other parent's weaknesses, but you should also acknowledge their strengths.

  • Don't Repeat Yourself: You should assume that evaluator heard you the first time and, even if the evaluator's reaction (or lack of reaction) is not what you expect, you should avoid repeating yourself.

  • Don't Try to Manipulate the Outcome: You may have read articles suggesting that it is possible to game the evaluator in order to get a better outcome. You should assume that the evaluator has seen people attempt those tricks on many prior occasions, and that are not only likely to fail but may backfire on you by making you appear manipulative and dishonest.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.