Podcast: Establishing Physical & Legal Custody Under Minnesota’s Best Interest Standard

In this edition of The Family Law Show, we offer an overview of the standards Minnesota judges use in determining the physical and legal custody of children.

Custody is an emotionally-charged issue, with a lot of uncertainty for parents and kids.

Topics in this podcast include the difference between physical custody and legal custody, joint custody as compared to sole custody, the “best interest of the child” factors and the key facts judges look toward in making custody decisions.

Run Time: 12:52

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Give Yourself The Advantage: Tips For Dealing With Custody Evaluators

Child custody can be a controversial issue; it is common for both parents to want physical custody – or for one parent to seek sole custody over a joint custody arrangement.

The disagreements can go on and on, and that means the court has to intervene with the custody evaluation process. A custody evaluator is appointed, or hired, to review the situation and create a report that the court uses to determine what is in the best interest of the minor child.

It is best to cooperate with the custody evaluator in every way possible. How you interact with the evaluator is going to carry a lot of weight in the evaluation – even though the relevant statute doesn’t reference your conduct during the process.

Here are some things you should keep in mind when working with a custody evaluator:

  • They will sometimes make you feel that they are on your side. This is so you will put your guard down. Never ever make the assumption that the evaluator is on your side.
  • Keep in mind that they are human, and will react adversely to certain personalities. If you’re honest and open, then that is going to work in your favor.
  • The custody evaluator doesn’t care about who the good guys and the bad guys are. It is what is best for the child that concerns them.
  • Do not argue with the custody evaluator. You need to make eye contact and listen to them. You need to establish rapport with them, so it may help that you nod your head in acknowledgment of what they are saying. If you disagree, disagree nicely. You need to get your own points across so that they are considered.
  • Provide the evaluator with all supporting documentation, and any other documents that may be requested. It is also important to provide these documents in a timely manner.
  • If there are any collateral contacts, provide the evaluator with their names. These are individuals that are aware of your competence as a parent, and can vouch for the weak points of the other party.

About 95% of the time, the judge will adopt the recommendations of the custody evaluator. We’ve successfully tried many cases, however, in which we were able to discredit the opinion of the evaluator and gain an award of custody in favor of our client. Still, the odds are against if the report comes back in favor of your spouse. For obvious reasons, it is critical to have the custody evaluator on your side.

Discrediting Adverse Custody Evaluators

If you and your spouse cannot reach agreement on the legal and physical custody of your child, your matter is probably headed for trial. The court will be left to determine what is in the “best interests” of your child through the use of a custody evaluation and report. About 95% of the time, the court will adopt the evaluator’s recommendations – unless you have a strong advocate who knows how to challenge their conclusions.

Here are a few ways to discredit the custody evaluator at trial:

  1. Bias. In personal injury cases, the insurance company will hire a doctor to examine the injured. Insurers pay thousands of dollars (now you know where your premiums go) to certain doctors who are prone to rendering an opinion favorable to the insurance company. These “independent” experts are often discredited by the plaintiff’s lawyer bringing out the hundreds of prior opinions these physicians have rendered against injury victims. The same holds true in family court. Most custody evaluators have years of experience and have rendered hundreds of opinions. If there is consistency in those opinions, they carry a bias. Certain experts are prone to rendering certain opinions. Make the court aware of the bias of the evaluator and the recommendations may be discredited.
  2. Diligence. We’ve cross-examined custody evaluators who have spent less than an hour in the presence of our client and the children that are the subject of the action. How much can anyone learn about a familial situation in 60 minutes of observation. What if the kids were having a tough day? What if the parent is nervous about the scrutiny of the evaluator? What if the dog won’t stop barking? Think of it as a movie. If someone stopped “Titanic” before the ice berg and never watched the ending, they’d think everyone arrived safely in New York and wouldn’t know the whole story. Evaluators are busy people. That haste can be taken advantage of.
  3. Qualifications. Just who is the evaluator in your case? Do they have Ph.D.? How many evaluations have they conducted? Who are they employed by? What is their degree in? Have they been subject to an action for malpractice or ethics complaints? Disciplined by a professional board? Are they a licensed psychologist? All of these questions go to the foundation of the expert’s opinions. Get them disqualified as an expert and the court cannot rely on their recommendations.

These same techniques can be used to discredit other court-appointed custody experts, such as a Guardian Ad Litem. No kidding – we had case in which the adverse Guardian had a degree in art history and failed to spend a single moment with our client in the presence of our client with the children (despite a statutory requirement that she meet with the parent in the presence of the children in the relevant home). We attacked her opinions on all three of the grounds referenced above.