When preparing a child custody case, lawyers and clients want to choose well among the tools in their toolboxes. These tools include several ways experts can strengthen the case. This column focuses on experts used in Orange and Chatham County, North Carolina courts; approaches may vary elsewhere.
The most common use of experts is asking the court to appoint a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) for the minor child. The GAL is someone with a legal and/or mental health background and special training in custody cases. The GAL does a mini custody evaluation, with recommendations on the child’s best interests and on related issues. Judges follow the recommendations of experienced GALs a vast majority of the time, which helps cases settle after the GAL report and before a trial (saving the parties time and money in a trial). These evaluations take about 10 hours of the GAL’s time, and usually cost $1,500 – $2,000 (often shared between the parties). This is faster and less expensive than a full custody evaluation. The GAL meets personally with the child(ren) and with each party, and observes parent-child-sibling interactions. The GAL talks to other people with important information, like grandparents, teachers, doctors, etc.
Full custody evaluations are another tool, but they are rare because they are more expensive and lengthy than a GAL mini custody evaluation. A full custody evaluation is usually performed by a psychologist with special training in this area. It usually takes a couple of months to complete, and typically costs $7,000 – 12,000, depending on the number and complexity of issues. For certain cases this can be worthwhile, but the GAL alternative often suffices.
Parenting Coordinators (PCs) are specially trained lawyers or mental health professionals appointed by the court after a custody decision to help minimize future conflict. A PC serves as an intermediary and referee in the parents’ communications. A PC tries to help the parents agree on decisions like scheduling, non-emergency medical care, or extracurricular activities; if they cannot agree, the PC usually makes the decision. A parent who disagrees strongly with the PC’s decision can take the issue to the judge. Many conflicts can be resolved by a PC faster and less expensively than the parties paying their lawyers to go to court. PCs are paid hourly by the parties for their service.
Child-centered therapists have remained an important resource for seeing children and families through divorce. A therapist gives a child a neutral, trained person to talk to. Ideally, both parents participate in choosing the therapist and in therapy. However, if the other parent refuses to cooperate when therapy seems beneficial to the child, it may be best to go ahead with therapy with an open invitation to the other parent. Sometimes a parent’s refusal to participate in therapy for a child is an important factor in a custody case. If cost and lack of insurance prevent using a private therapist, consider starting with a school counselor. Some therapists will not appear as witnesses in court (believing they serve the child better if no one can use them in court or because they simply don’t like going to court). Others are willing to appear as witnesses if called.
Because practices vary among the different counties and judicial districts, I recommend consulting an attorney who regularly appears in that court. Local knowledge of court practices and of available resources is important in deciding whether and how to use an expert in custody cases.
Kim K. Steffan is an attorney with Steffan & Associates, P.C. in Hillsborough, NC. She can be reached at 919-732-7300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was last updated in January 2020.