Custody battles: how to keep them economical

Custody battles are frustrating and hard to win. Parents who are looking to win sole custody during a child custody proceeding should prepare themselves for what may be a difficult ordeal. Sole custody differs from joint custody in that a sole custody case grants legal and physical custody to one parent, instead of both parents. The terms “Legal Custody” and “Physical Custody” are often confused. Legal Custody has to do with decision-making on the child(ren)’s behalf on matters of health, education, and financial management. “Physical Custody” relates to where the children live and when they, in accordance with a judge’s order, are and are not scheduled to be there.

The judge decides who will be primarily in charge of the child(ren)’s health, education and finances, and with whom the children will primarily live. Problems arise when parents come in to court and allege different facts. The mother will sometimes argue that the children have expressed a preference to live with Dad. Mom will counter by saying that the father is abusive and does not pay attention to the children. There are usually multiple back-and-forth allegations that make not only the judge’s head spin but the attorneys’ too. Who will the judge believe?

Couples with financial means can agree to what is called 730 Custody Evaluation. It is called a 730 because that is the code section in the California Family Code where it is cited. In a 730 evaluation, the custody decision is made after the judge hears from the professional evaluator.

The custody evaluator will interview the child(ren) and parents in each case. The evaluator may very well interview child psychologists, teachers, coaches, neighbors and family friends, as they form the professional opinion that will become the basis for their recommendation to the judge. But in tightly-fought cases, the litigants do not just let the professional’s recommendation reign supreme. Typically, they call their partisans to the witness stand so that the judge can hear first-hand from them. Similarly (and here is where the fight turns ugly) they also call their opponents’ detractors, if they can persuade them to tell their unflattering stories to the judge as well. All these litigation options could ramp up attorney fees and costs rapidly, which can easily exceed $30,000 and up.

Fortunately, depending on the issues of the conflict, there is a more economical alternative for families that cannot afford the high cost of a 730 evaluation. This is called a Parenting Plan Assessment. The Parenting Plan Assessment can be an efficient and effective tool to assist the judge in his or her decision making. These evaluations can be completed in less time than a full child custody evaluation, so that the information can be available to the court more quickly, avoiding some of the delays in the resolution of issues than can exacerbate tensions in families. The fees for these evaluations range from $975 to $1950.

The Parenting Plan Assessment is generally ordered when there are limited funds or a clear situation for which the court needs additional information. In Los Angeles County, the courts can order a Parenting Plan Assessment when they need a objective analysis of what is going on.

In a Parenting Plan Assessment, an evaluator conducts interviews with parents and children, as well as observes parent-child interactions. The evaluator typically reviews relevant records and conducts telephone interviews with collateral contacts, such as therapists, teachers, or other professionals who have worked with the family.

Everybody knows that ending a relationship is never easy, but when there are children involved, it becomes even more complicated. When seeking custody of your children, you should not be blinded by the conflict and lose sight of the fact that your children’s well-being is at stake. During this time of crisis and instability in your family, you should not burden your children with situations they cannot control, and you should never ask your children to deal with adult issues.

The purpose of this column is to provide general information on the law, which is subject to change. It is not legal advice. Consult a lawyer if you have a specific legal problem.

 

**********

Published: Nov. 20, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 32