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Child Custody | Family

What Do Child Custody Evaluators Look For?

10 min read
Philip Ahn, Attorney

by Philip Ahn, Attorney

Child custody evaluations are ordered in many child custody cases, especially when co-parents disagree about custody rights and/or the judge otherwise believes that there is a need for an evaluation. This can be stressful for parents to deal with. One way of overcoming your anxiety is to understand what a child custody evaluator looks for and how to prepare for an evaluation. 

Generally, child custody evaluators (normally a psychologist) evaluate you, your child, and the other parent to assess the psychological needs of the child and each parent’s ability to best provide for the child’s needs. Evaluations can include interviews, observations, psychological tests, and information from previous court proceedings. 

We can connect you today with a local child custody lawyer from our network to understand the procedure and how to best present your case. Learn more below about what child custody evaluators look for, how to prepare, and what to expect during an evaluation. 

What is a Child Custody Evaluation?

A child custody evaluation typically involves a mental health professional evaluating the entire family and providing a recommendation about custody and visitation rights to the court. These evaluations occur to ensure that the child’s needs are met and help to determine which parent is most equipped to consistently meet them. 

During the assessments, child custody evaluators pay close attention to each parent’s skills as well as deficits in skills. The parent that shows the ability to provide for their children’s needs will typically be recommended for custody by a child custody evaluator. Additionally, if a child custody evaluator determines that one parent is not fit for custodial rights, it could also have a negative effect on visitation rights. 

When Are Custody Evaluation Performed?

Child custody evaluations are usually performed when parents are not able to come to a child custody agreement without the help of a judge. Furthermore, child custody evaluations may be ordered if one or both parents do not think that the current child custody agreement in place is in the child’s best interest. 

In each scenario, a judge will take into account the information and recommendations provided by the child custody evaluator. Though the evaluator’s recommendation is not a final ruling, it will have a major influence on how a judge makes child custody decisions. 

Each parent can also request a child custody evaluation or consent to a child custody evaluation. In most cases, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced child custody lawyer before making the decision to request or consent to an evaluation. 

How to Prepare For a Child Custody Evaluation

Each child custody evaluation is different. Some will consist of one long meeting and others can involve multiple meetings occurring over a number of weeks. In general, if a child custody evaluation is ordered, a judge will continue your case for an additional 2 – 3 months. 

Each evaluation is unique. Child custody evaluators evaluate each case differently, the number of meetings and the total amount of hours vary. Not knowing what to expect can increase stress and anxiety. These feelings can alter your normal behavior and interactions with your child during an evaluation. To limit this from affecting the evaluator’s recommendation, here are a few tips to reduce anxiety during the process:

  • Be Organized: Your evaluator may request case documents as well as other pertinent documentation. Ensure that you have all of your information organized and available. 
  • Cooperate: Though you may not be in favor of the evaluation, it is important to not actively oppose the evaluator. Doing so could leave the wrong impression and negatively affect their recommendation. 
  • Take it Seriously: Treat your meeting with a child custody evaluator like it is a job interview. Ensure that you are on time, well-dressed, and honest with the evaluator. 
  • Consider The Best Interest of Your Child: Exhibiting characteristics of a parent that puts their child’s interest above their own can bode favorably on the outcome of evaluations.
  • Consult With Your Attorney: A child custody lawyer can help you to develop referral questions to shed light on specific areas of the evaluation that the evaluator may have overlooked or undervalued. 

Child Custody Evaluation Process

In most cases, the child custody evaluator is chosen by your child custody lawyer and the judge. However, in some cases they may furnish you with a list of approved evaluators and allow you to choose. Ensure that you inquire about their experience as an evaluator and their training with the specific issues that your family is dealing with before you decide to work with them. 

The child custody evaluation process consists of interviews, observations, psychological testing, and a review of past court documents. Learn more about each step below. 


It is important to discuss the details of your evaluation with your family lawyer before your interview(s) takes place. They can help you to prepare for the tough questions and decrease overall nervousness. During the interview, it is recommended that you focus on the best interest of your child. This includes providing positive information along with critiques of the other parent. 

In addition, be honest with your evaluator. In some cases, they may ask you questions that they already know the answer to, but they just want to gauge your sincerity.   

Child custody evaluators are not your psychologist. They are not there to provide advice, but rather to assess as an impartial third-party. Furthermore, evaluations are not confidential. The observations, interviews, and psychological testing are all available to the courts as well as the opposing party. 


Observations of parent and child interactions play a critical role during the child custody evaluation process. While observing, the evaluator will pay attention to the following:

  • Quality of relationship with the parent and child 
  • How the parent and the child communicate
  • The parent’s ability to identify and tend to their child’s needs
  • If the child follows directions from the parent 
  • The parent’s ability to manage their own emotions as well as their child’s
  • Whether or not there is a structure in place for the child

Some evaluators prefer to observe the family at home and in an office environment. Observations can consist of free play, cooperative tasks, or teaching tasks. Different types of observations can assist the child custody evaluator in observing through a holistic lense. 

Psychological Testing

Psychological tests conducted during the child custody evaluation are designed to provide additional information about each parent’s ability to effectively take care of their child’s needs. Some of the more common tests used to determine a parent’s level of mental health include:

  • Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2)
  • The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)
  • The Millon Clinical MultiAxial Inventory (MCMMI-3)
  • The Bricklin Perceptual Scales (BPS)
  • The Ackerman-Schoendorf Scales for Parent Evaluation of Custody (ASPECT)

Psychological tests can offer insights. However, evaluators often weigh interviews with the parents, children, teachers, medical professionals, family members, etc., and information learned during observations more heavily. 

Review Previous Court Documentation

An evaluator will most likely review documentation, outcomes, statements, and evidence presented in past child custody court appearances. This is why it’s important to be honest with the evaluator. They often have more information that you are aware of and will look for inconsistencies, improvements made, and areas that still need improvement. 

What Do Child Custody Evaluators Look For?

Child custody evaluators test, observe, interview, and give recommendations. Recommendations are made regarding many categories such as custody/visitation rights, parenting plans, mental health assessments, and recommendations for additional learning (i.e. parenting class). 

The main goal of a child custody evaluator is to identify what is in the child’s best interest. This can be especially necessary for circumstances that involve severe mental health disabilities, cognitive impairments, history of drug abuse, allegations of physical abuse, etc. 

While the recommendations of a child custody evaluator are taken seriously and heavily considered, the ultimate decision on child custody will be determined by a judge. 

Things to do During Child Custody Evaluations

The first step is to be prepared for your child custody evaluation. Preparation can help you to calm your anxiety. During the evaluation, it is important that you keep the evaluator’s role in mind. Their job is to deliver an objective opinion of what’s in your child’s best interest. 

Furthermore, keep your focus on parenting issues and solutions. This is not the time to focus on marital or relationship problems with the other parent. Though observations are somewhat artificial, it is important to be as natural as possible. Interact with your children, include favorite activities, and highlight the safe environment that you have created for them. 

What to Avoid During Child Custody Evaluations 

There are certain things that you can do to make a good impression on a child custody evaluator. There are also other things that you should avoid at all costs. A few things that you shouldn’t do during a child custody evaluation include:

  • Coach your kids to behave in a contrived or unnatural manner
  • Be late for appointments or miss them 
  • Disregard current custody orders that are in place
  • Say negative things about the other parent 
  • Attempt to manipulate the evaluator

How Can An Attorney Help Me During a Child Custody Evaluation?

If you are involved in a disputed child custody case or there have been concerns raised about neglect or abuse, it is in your best interest to contact a reputable child custody lawyer. An adept attorney can prepare you for your evaluation, offer insight into the process, represent you in court, and advise you of your rights and responsibilities. 

You have the right to represent yourself. However, this is not typically recommended. Child custody evaluations can have a major impact on child custody decisions rendered by the court. An attorney can help to ensure that you are prepared and know what to expect before the process begins. 

How Much Can I Expect to Pay a Child Custody Lawyer?

Before discussing the costs of a child custody attorney, it is important to note that you and/or the other parent will have to pay for a child custody evaluator. Costs for an evaluation are typically $1,000 – $2,500. However, costs for a private evaluator can far exceed these numbers.

Unfortunately, legal fees are often more expensive than the cost of a child custody evaluation. The typical child custody lawyer charges $3k – $5k just to get started on your case. They then charge an additional $300 – $500 per hour. 

Though most families recognize the importance of working with a child custody lawyer, they often cannot afford the cost of traditional lawyers. Many of those families have turned to unbundled legal services to help them to save money while still working with a proven lawyer. 

Save Money With An Unbundled Lawyer

You may be wondering “What is an unbundled attorney?” or “What are unbundled legal services?” Essentially, people hire unbundled attorneys to handle specific aspects of their case while they take care of the rest themselves. 

Traditional attorney fees are so high because they work for you with the intention of handling every aspect of your case. The more they work, the more hours they bill, and the more expensive your invoice will be. Unbundled attorneys can charge less because they do less.

Unbundled legal help starts as low as $500 – $1500. It is important to note that unbundled legal services are not a good fit for every case. If your case requires a full-time attorney, our network of small law firms and independent child custody lawyers also offer full representation at an affordable rate.

Before you spend thousands of dollars in upfront legal fees with a traditional child custody lawyer, let us put you in touch with a local child custody lawyer to see if you are a good fit for unbundled legal services.

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