We previously discussed methods of resolving custody cases that are cooperative and cost-effective, but that depend on the parents’ ability to agree about a solution. If no such agreement is possible, the custody decision largely passes from the parents to third parties, who resolve the issue by processes that typically are complex, time-consuming and expensive. These are the primary third-party methods used.
In some cases, the family law judge decides (or the parties agree) that it is in the best interest of the children to have a child custody evaluation. A custody evaluation is an investigation by a trained psychologist or other mental health professional into the facts of the case. Usually, the investigation includes interviews with the parents, children, and other people who may have information about the situation, liked teachers, doctors, other relatives, or counselors. It can also include other important reports that relate to the family’s ultimate custody decision, like court records, policy reports, and reports from providers of anger management or parenting classes. The evaluator may also visit the parents’ residences or the children’s school sites.
When the investigation is complete, the evaluator will write a report describing what he or she found about each parent, the children, and the family situation. Based upon this information and the evaluator’s knowledge of child development and human psychology, he or she will make a recommendation to the court for custody and a parenting plan. If the parents agree to the recommendation, then the case can then be settled. If not, a trial will take place.
There are 2 types of custody evaluations:
- Solution-Focused Evaluation. This is a limited evaluation appropriate for specific, non-complicated issues, temporary orders, or review of compliance or progress with previous orders. It can also be used when parents or the court want expert input about specific decisions (for example, school placement). The typical time to complete this evaluation is two to four weeks.
- Comprehensive Evaluation. This option is available to parties who cannot reach agreement about physical and/or legal custody arrangements. This may include situations where there are serious allegations involving parent fitness, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, or alienation, or where one party seeks to relocate with the children far enough away to disrupt the other party’s relationship with the children. The typical time to complete this evaluation is 10 to13 weeks.
Parent Plan Coordinator (PPC)
This is a non-adversarial dispute resolution process appropriate for parties who have a prolonged and detrimental pattern of intense conflict and/or frequent litigation about their children. This process can only be engaged in if both parties agree to the appointment of a PPC. The appointment of the PPC usually lasts for a specified period of time (usually one to three years) and the PPC is given authority by the parties to make decisions and recommendations on their behalf. This process can be quicker and less costly than ongoing litigation but it often involves turning over decision-making to the PPC without any right for review from a court (depending upon the terms of appointment).
If the parties have been unable to resolve their dispute through any other process, and do not agree to the appointment of a Parenting Plan Coordinator (PPC), then a judge will decide the matter for the parties. This process is the most expensive, most lengthy and most adversarial method of resolving the dispute, and takes the final decision completely out of the parents’ hands.