Clearing Up Custody

Resolving Custody Disputes – Ways and Means

Maryland courts offer lots of help to families litigating custody disputes so that each child can emerge from a separation or divorce with his or her best interests intact. The two biggest sources of help from the court are custody evaluations and the appointment of a Best Interests Attorney to assist in your case.

Custody Evaluations:
Custody evaluations help the court decide the best custody and/or visitation schedule for your child or children by getting expert evaluators to assess the parents, the children, and their relationships. A custody evaluation can be conducted by private evaluators or through the Family Services division of the circuit court. There are several ways of having a custody evaluation performed, including but not limited to: referral by a mediator, agreement by the parties, and, often, the referral as a result of a court order. A judge will usually issue a court order for a custody evaluation if the judge deems it necessary or if one party requests it.

What happens during a Custody Evaluation?

The process usually begins at the scheduling hearing, where the Master in Chancery makes a recommendation that is ultimately signed by a judge. Or the Master will decide whether or not a custody evaluation is right for your case. If the judge orders a custody evaluation, your next step is to meet and cooperate with the custody evaluator. Within a specific time the custody evaluator will deliver a written report of the evaluator’s recommendations and findings. The evaluator will not make a specific schedule but the evaluator might make general recommendations about the parents and children to the judge. If your case proceeds to trial, the custody evaluator will likely provide testimony of his findings to the Court. At trial each party has the right to cross examine the custody evaluator to support its position.

A custody evaluator meets with both parents, with the child (if age appropriate), conducts a home visit with each parent, obtains medical records and may speak directly with the Primary Care Physician. During your time with the evaluator, expect to be asked about your ideal parenting plan, your goals as a parent, and what sorts of care-taking roles you fill as a parent. The evaluator will also ask you about your child. The evaluator may ask you about your child’s health, behavior, relationships with siblings and other family members, and what sorts of changes and effects you’ve noticed since the separation or divorce.

In addition to meeting with your family and visiting your home, an evaluator may also contact your employer, your neighbors, or the child’s school. You are allowed to give the evaluator written documentation, information, and lists of people you think it would be helpful to contact.

Individual assessment of each parent and child may often include testing to determine aptitude, intelligence level, academic levels, personality, and character and an in-depth evaluation and assessment through interviews. Often custody evaluators utilize the services of psychologists, physicians, social workers, educators, and other professionals.

In Prince George’s County, the circuit court has an arrangement with a panel of custody evaluators and the cost in capped at $4000. Private custody evaluations can run much more– in the $10,000 range and upwards from there.

How can I prepare for a Custody Evaluation?

The best way to prepare for a custody evaluation is to be the best parent you can be. Be an active part of your child’s life and make your home a safe and loving place for your children to spend time. If your child has a need, do your best to meet it. Custody evaluators are not looking to assign one parent “the winner” and the other “the loser.” Their job is to help the court find the custody arrangement that works best for your child/children.

Best Interests Attorneys

A Best Interests Attorney is appointed by the Court in disputed custody cases where the judge decides that a third party attorney can best represent the child’s best interests in the case. The judge would issue an order with the identity of the attorney, the hourly rate for the attorney, and how the costs of the attorney will be split between the parents. For example the cost for a Best Interests Attorney in Prince George’s Circuit Court is capped at $3,000 per case. However the cost varies from county to county and also the cost is related to the needs of the case and, to some degree, to the ability of the parties to pay for the services of the Best Interests Attorney.

What does a Best Interests Attorney do?

The Best Interests Attorney represents your child as independent legal counsel in the custody or visitation dispute, which means that they advocate for the outcome that represents the child’s best interests. In contentious cases, the Best Interests Attorney can be a helpful go-between for you and your spouse. The Best Interests Attorney can bring a neutral point of view to the evidence and the expert recommendations. This attorney can also help your child navigate the stress of a custody dispute by helping him/her prepare to testify or be interviewed by a judge, as well as helping to prepare for other expert assessments.

Best Interest Attorneys and custody evaluations are not the right fit for all cases but they can help high-conflict or complicated custody disputes get resolved in your child’s best interest. These resources are offered by the State of Maryland to help you and your family find what custody arrangement and schedule works for you.

Fred Antenberg is a family law attorney practicing in Howard and surrounding counties and can counsel you on how to utilize various resources in an effort to bring about the objective you seek to achieve. CONTACT Fred today at 410 730 4404.