What Are the Steps of a Custody Evaluation?

When people fight in divorce, they fight about two things: kids and money.

When kids are involved, things can get complicated. This is because figuring out custody and parent-time depends on lots of different things. To help the judge sort out everything, you usually hire a custody evaluator.

In this post, I won’t explain generally what a custody evaluator does (I figure that if you’re reading a post explaining the step of a custody evaluation, you already know what a custody evaluator does; but, if you don’t, read here). Instead, I want to discuss the steps in the custody evaluation process.

The Steps

The way I’m going to do this may seem a little stilted, but I’ll number the steps and explain them as I go on (sorry, this is how my brain works, and, since I’m writing this, you get to play along for a minute):

  1. Pay the custody evaluator’s retainer.

Evaluators are professionals and this is what they do for a living, so you have to pay them before they will start work on your case. Their retainers work in much the same way an attorney’s retainer works.

Warning: if the Court orders a custody evaluation, and you don’t pay the retainer (or your portion of the retainer), the Court can punish you, including striking your pleadings (i.e., you lose).

  1. Initial paperwork.

The evaluator will send you a pretty thick stack of papers to fill out. These take the form of questionnaires. They ask about everything: your kids personalities and behaviors, why your marriage is ending, what you like and dislike about your spouse, what you think should happen, how much money you make, etc. It’s all very thorough and can take quite a while to complete.

  1. Initial individual interviews.

Each parent will meet with the custody evaluator individually as kind of a get-to-know-you session.

  1. Psychological testing.

Evaluators usually have parents undergo some psychological testing to see who their dealing with. You have to realize people lie to evaluators all the time, and psych testing helps them determine how likely it is someone will lie to them. It also helps evaluators determine if someone has mental health issues that could affect the children.

  1. Individual meetings with the children.

Evaluators will meet individually with your kids to get to know them and talk with them about their thoughts and feelings.

  1. In-office parent-time observation.

In this step, you will go to a controlled environment (usually, the evaluator’s office) with your kids and have parent-time with them. The evaluator might have you do certain things (for example, play a particular game), or might give you and your kids some unstructured time. The point of this is to see how you and your child interact with each other in a new situation.

  1. In-home parent-time observation.

The evaluator will also come to your home to see you interact with your children. This allows him or her to see you in your normal environment. To see how you deal with behaviors, school work, chores, game time, and everything else that makes up normal, everyday life.

  1. Collateral interviews (i.e., interviews with non-parent who are close to the kids).

Evaluators will also talk to people involved in the kids’ lives that aren’t parents. This could be a grandparent, a new boyfriend/girlfriend, or a family member one of spouses is living with during the divorce. This allows the evaluator to get multiple viewpoints on the parents and the kids.

  1. Guardian ad litem discussion.

If there is a guardian ad litem on your case (more on guardians here), the evaluator will speak to him or her.

  1. Document review.

There are lots of documents that need to be reviewed in a custody evaluation. For example: medical documents, school/attendance records, psychiatric records, criminal history records, court pleadings, questionnaires, therapy records, and on, and on, and on.

Evaluators can ask for releases to gather and examine any records they want about the parents and children. It’s a pretty invasive process.

  1. Follow-up interviews.

If there are follow-up questions, the evaluator may ask to meet with the parents (or anyone, really) again.

  1. Formulate recommendations.

Eventually, after the data collection part is done, the evaluator will formulate their custody and parent-time recommendations. These recommendations are then communicated to the attorneys — usually by a conference call. The evaluator doesn’t write a full evaluation recommendation at this point (that costs extra).

  1. Attend 4-903 conference.

When a 4-903 conference is held (more on what a 4-903 conference is here), the evaluator will attend and lay out his or her recommendations, as well as the reasoning behind them, to the parents and attorneys. After that is done, the evaluator will leave and let the parties mediate. Evaluators always give the attorneys their cell phone number just in case there are any questions that need to be answered during mediation.

  1. Written report.

If the parents cannot reach an agreement at the 4-903 conference (they usually reach an agreement), then the evaluator will prepare a written report. This report will be provided to the judge at trial.

  1. Deposition.

Sometimes, attorneys will take a custody evaluator’s deposition before trial to see how the evaluator will answer certain questions. (For more on depositions, read here.)

  1. Testimony at trial.

If trial happens, the evaluator will be there and provide his or her recommendations. Both attorneys will have chances to ask questions, and the judge may ask some as well to help clarify questions in his or her mind.

Most custody evaluators testify two, maybe three times per year. This tells you that the vast majority of cases settle before trial.


Few things to consider. First, every custody evaluator is different, which means the steps might not occur exactly in the order I laid out above. That said, the order won’t vary drastically from what’s above.

Second, each stage of the custody evaluation process costs. Through a 4-903 conference, most evaluators costs between $4000 to $8000. If you go trial, count on at least $10,000.

Third, custody evaluations take a long time. The shortest I’ve ever experienced is 3.5 months. Most take six to nine months. Some take a full year.

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