Child custody is often one of the most emotionally charged aspects of a divorce. It’s hard not to take it personally when you are arguing over who gets to raise your children. Ideally, the parties can come to some sort of mutually agreeable arrangement. If the parties are unable to reach an agreement, however, then the court will need to step in and decide upon a custody arrangement that serves the best interests of the child. There are several steps in the child custody dispute process. At a certain stage, a court may order the parties to undergo a child custody evaluation. Below, we discuss custody evaluations in New Jersey, what to expect, and how to best prepare. If you’re facing divorce or a child custody dispute in New Jersey, reach out to a knowledgeable Englewood child custody and parental rights attorney for advice and representation.
When Does the Child Custody Evaluation Happen?
New Jersey court rules dictate that when child custody or parenting time is in genuine dispute in a family law matter, and the parties cannot reach a resolution, the court must refer the parties to mediation. The parties should attempt to resolve the custody dispute and other matters in mediation, returning only after a sufficient effort has been made to reach agreement outside of court. The parties may consent to a child custody evaluation during mediation, but they are not typically required to do so.
If mediation fails, however, and the parties return to court with no agreement in hand, the court will be forced to resolve custody and parenting time. As part of the court’s consideration, the court might order the parties to undergo a custody evaluation.
What is a New Jersey Custody Evaluation?
A custody evaluation is used to determine the child custody and parenting time arrangement that serves the best interests of the child in dispute. The best interests of the child are determined by evaluating a number of factors including the child’s physical health and safety, the stability of each parent’s home life, the child’s attachment to each parent, each parent’s amount and quality of time spent with the child, the financial circumstances and living situation of each parent, the child’s emotional and psychological needs, and more.
The evaluation will be conducted by a neutral mental health professional and can take anywhere from two to six months. The evaluation is meant to dig into each parent’s fitness and circumstances as well as the relationship between the child and each parent. The evaluation will typically include:
- Interviews with each parent
- Interviews with the child
- Observations of the interactions between the kids and the parents
- Interviews with other parties such as teachers, caregivers, treating physicians, and others familiar with the children and/or the parent/child relationship
- Reviews of court filings
- Psychological evaluations of the parents and/or the child
Ultimately, the evaluator will generate an expert report evaluating the parties and making a recommendation regarding parenting time and custody.
Preparing for a Custody Evaluation
The child custody evaluation is meant to be a neutral evaluation of the family’s circumstances in order to provide a recommendation as to the best arrangement for the child. Facing such scrutiny from a stranger can be nerve-wracking, but it’s important to stay calm and simply be your best self. There’s no way to “win” an evaluation, other than by presenting yourself and your relationship with your child in an accurate, positive light.
There are certainly a few ways to make sure you are putting your best foot forward. These include:
- Be professional. Be on time, dress appropriately, and be professional. Try not to be offended that the process is happening at all; the evaluator is not there to judge you, but rather to make sure your child has the safest, healthiest, and most appropriate custody arrangement. Appearing hostile will not help you secure the custody arrangement you prefer.
- Be honest, and be fair. It’s tempting to disparage your spouse to the evaluator to “score points” or otherwise sway their decision; resist this temptation. You can share real, reasonable concerns, but do not fabricate problems with your ex. You’ll only hurt your case in the long run if the evaluator or the court finds out you were making things up.
- Be prepared. The evaluator might ask to review several documents such as school records, medical records, financial records and others. Bring what they ask for and have copies ready for yourself, your lawyer, and your ex. If you have concerns about anything they request, talk to your family law attorney about the appropriate scope of the investigation and any privacy worries you may have.
If you have any questions along the way, if you realize you made a mistake in your interview, or if you want to raise any other issue in particular, keep those things in mind. Take notes during the interviews and jot down other important thoughts that arise during the process. Talk to your attorney about any questions or concerns you may have, and they’ll help you decide what to discuss with the evaluator.
Dedicated Advice and Representation for New Jersey Child Custody Matters
If you’re considering divorce in New Jersey or dealing with child custody, child support, property division, or other family law issues, contact the Englewood family law attorneys Herbert & Weiss at (201) 500-2151.