Types Of Expert Witnesses And Evaluations Used In Family Law Cases

Vocational Assessments

A vocational assessment is used to help determine what a party is capable of earning for the purposes of determining child support and alimony. Typically, one party is claiming that child support either needs to be increased or decreased, because they are unable to earn the amount that the other party believes they’re capable of earning. We also see where a party may claim the other party’s income should be deemed higher than what that party claims, for purposes of determining alimony. The typical cost for a vocational assessment is between $1,600 and $2,400. Once ordered to occur, the party to be assessed meets with the vocational assessor, explains their education, training, skills, work history, general background, and employment background.

The vocational assessor then compares the capabilities of the subject with available jobs in the local area, and in the state that the person lives. The assessor gives an opinion about what jobs the subject could likely obtain, and how much they could likely earn in those jobs. Often, the opinion of a vocational assessor will resolve a dispute about whether a party is capable of supporting themselves or not, or whether alimony or child support should be increased or decreased based on the earning ability of the subject who was assessed.

Substance Abuse Evaluation And Testing

If substance abuse has been present historically, whether it be illegal drug abuse, prescription drug abuse, or alcohol abuse, either party may choose to have the other party evaluated. It is important to note that there is a wide range of quality in substance abuse evaluations. Most substance evaluations conducted are in a criminal context, to assist the criminal court in determining what treatment and sentencing is appropriate, for example in an illegal possession or a DUI case. In those circumstances, the police have already investigated and provided the police report relating to a current substance abuse offense. The evaluator may look at this to determine the severity of substance abuser’s problem and what interventions are needed.

However, criminal defense counsel, prosecutors and law enforcement typically don’t do deep background checks or deep questioning of the subject’s substance abuse history. If the subject shows up, and minimizes or lies about their substance abuse history, the evaluation results will be skewed. It is important in all evaluations, but particularly in substance abuse evaluations, that the other parent be provided an opportunity to give collateral data to the substance abuse evaluator, whether it be photographs, text messages, emails, or any other evidence relating to the substance abuse or the substance abuser’s background. This way, as the evaluation is being conducted, if the substance abuser lies about or minimizes their substance abuse history, the evaluator has other collateral data to help the evaluator to determine if the substance abuser is lying or minimizing.

Typically, objective testing and standardized testing such as the SASSI4 are administered, collateral data reviewed, interviews conducted, and the report written. The typical cost is relatively low for a substance abuse evaluation—generally a few hundred dollars, or even less. If a party suspects you of substance abuse and you do not have a substance abuse problem, or your substance abuse problem is minimal, sometimes you can voluntarily get your own substance abuse evaluation. This can put you ahead of the issue, and demonstrate that you don’t have a problem. For illegal and un-prescribed substance abuse testing, urinalysis, also called UAs, and hair tests are the most common tests the court will order administered. Often, the court will enter an order that if one party bears the initial cost, the other party will undergo a substance abuse test, within 24 hours if it’s UA that’s been requested, and within five days if it’s a hair testing requested.

If a hair test is requested or ordered, usually the court will order that the parties not bleach, alter, or cut their hair prior to the test being administered. It’s important that the court also order those tests to be observed, that the collection of the sample is observed, so that there is no question that the sample came from the right subject. It’s also better if the results are faxed or emailed directly to an attorney for the party or to the court, rather than passing through the hands of one of the parties, so as to avoid a claim that the results were altered. UAs generally cost in the neighborhood of $35 to $50, and hair tests in the neighborhood of $75 to $100.

Parental Fitness Evaluation

The purpose of a parental fitness evaluation is to determine a parent’s strengths and weaknesses, together with what interventions or treatments are necessary to remedy or protect against those weaknesses or deficiencies. The evaluator is typically an experienced forensic psychologist who conducts a battery of psychological tests on the subject, does extensive interviews with that party, and receives and evaluates relevant collateral information such as photos, social media posts, text messages, emails, police reports, DCFS records, or any other relevant data that could inform the evaluator’s opinion. After the evaluator conducts the testing interviews and reviews the collateral data, they will write a report indicating the subject’s strengths, weaknesses, deficiencies, and what is needed to mediate or protect against the deficiencies of the subject. Parental fitness evaluations may range inn initial cost from $1,500.00 to approximately $2,500.00

Domestic Violence Evaluation

A domestic violence evaluation is similar to a parental fitness evaluation. It generally engages in the same types of interviews and methodologies utilized by parental fitness evaluation, but has additional testing specifically geared to determine the subject’s history of and potential risk for continued domestic violence. The cost is similar to that of a parental fitness evaluation discussed above.

Visitation Evaluation

A visitation evaluation is broader in scope than a parental fitness evaluation. It is essentially two parental fitness evaluations. They have parental fitness evaluation of each parent, together with observations of each parent with the children and interviews of the children. The purpose of visitation evaluation is not to determine custody, but to determine what parent-time or visitation should look like. This includes what the strengths or weaknesses of the parties are, whether there is any risk to the children under the current visitation schedule, and what steps should be taken to protect against any risk presented by one or both of the parents. Typically, a visitation evaluation includes a written report from the evaluator.

Custody Evaluation

To read more about Custody Evaluation Used In Family Law Cases, Click here.

Allocation of Costs

As far as the cost of a custody evaluation, parental fitness evaluation, or visitation evaluation, the court-appointed custody evaluators, visitation evaluators, or parental fitness evaluators may be paid by one party, by both parties equally, or by both parties in a manner proportionate to their income. For example, if totaling both parties’ incomes, mother earns 60% of the income and father earns 40% of the income, often the court might require the mother to pay 60% of the evaluation cost. However, the parties can agree to any other division of the cost of these evaluations.

Treating Experts

The court can consider testimony from treating experts as opposed to forensic experts. The roles of treating experts and the roles of forensic experts are very different and should not be combined. A forensic expert is any expert who uses their expertise to give a recommendation to a court. For example, if a doctor, therapist, or psychologist assesses a subject and writes a letter to the court explaining what he or she believes the court should order, they are engaging in forensic work. It is unethical for a treating expert or a treating therapist to engage in both therapy and forensic work simultaneously. Therapists very often get in trouble by failing to understand their ethical obligations to avoid engaging in forensic work after performing the role of treating therapist.

There are specific rules and guidelines in the therapist ethical code that warn against and should prevent them from doing so, but very often treating therapists are not well-informed, or not well educated in understanding the limits of what they can do in a forensic capacity. Often, a treating therapist will write a letter to the court stating “I have treated this child for X number of sessions. The child has reported this to me, and based on our observations during the treatment, I recommend that the other parent’s parent time be supervised.” By writing such a letter, they are engaging in both therapy and forensic work simultaneously, violating their own ethical guidelines, and likely as not harming their patient by inflaming one party unnecessarily, causing additional conflict, and muddying the waters as to looking the child’s best interest.

In light of this problem, an organization called the AFCC was created. The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) was created by some of the nation’s foremost experts in custody evaluations and forensic practice. The AFCC has promulgated guidelines for court-involved therapy, which gives therapists who are treating a patient who is involved with court clear guidelines of what they should and should not do in order to avoid being manipulated, and in order to protect the child and the family from the potential harm that can be created if they were to inappropriately blur their roles or make unwarranted assumptions. Thus, hopefully, any treating therapist would both be familiar with the AFCC guidelines for court involved therapy, and will inherently follow to those principles. Assuming they do, a treating therapist may still give important information for the court to consider regarding the parties or the children, if done in a proper way.

Similarly, treating doctors, psychologists, and other medical professionals may be used to clarify for the court the status of their patient. Forensic accountants or bookkeepers may be used to help determine a party’s assets, incomes, and liabilities, particularly if they are extensive or complicated. In high income or high asset cases, forensic accountants are often invaluable in helping parties and their attorneys untangle and simplify the relevant information, in order to make an equitable distribution of the debts and assets, and in determining what alimony and child support should be awarded.

For more information on Expert Witnesses & Evaluations In Family Law, an initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (801) 616-3301 today.

Get Help Now

*Child Welfare Law Specialist Nat’l Assoc. of Counsel for Children