Oftentimes during complex and contested custody battles in South Carolina, a judge will appoint either a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) or custody evaluator to help them determine what is in the best interests of the child. If you are a party to a contested custody case, it is important to know the role of these two individuals in your case and what to expect if they are appointed by the judge.
Why Do Courts Appoint GALs and Custody Evaluators?
In South Carolina, the legal standard for determining custody is “best interests of the child.” Accordingly, overall, both GALs and custody evaluators are appointed to help a judge determine what is in the “best interests of the child.” Under South Carolina law (S.C. Code Ann. § 63-15-240(B)), there are several factors relevant to determining what is in the best interests of the child, including, but not limited to:
- The child’s developmental needs and personality;
- Whether the parent has the necessary mental capacity and personality to understand the needs of the child;
- The relationship of the child’s siblings or relatives with the child if the child frequently sees them;
- Whether the parent complies with court orders and does not inappropriately alienate the child from the other parent;
- Any wrongful or otherwise manipulative behavior by the parent to unnecessarily involve the child in the parents’ legal dispute;
- Whether one parent intentionally disparages the other in front of the child;
- Any factors relevant to each parent’s ability to be involved in the child’s life, including work schedule flexibility or other outside commitments;
- The child’s acclimation to his or home, school, and community environments; and
- The stability in both the child’s existing and proposed residences.
The weight a given judge gives to the opinion of a GAL or custody evaluator differs from judge to judge. However, given the closeness both individuals have with the minor children as an appointed objective third party, a judge will often weigh their opinions accordingly.
What Are the Key Differences Between a GAL and a Custody Evaluator?
A GAL is typically an attorney with a focus on child custody law and parenting issues. Their role is to act as an advocate on behalf of the minor child(ren) by speaking to them about the pending case. Unlike a GAL, custody evaluators are licensed psychologists who have received formal training and the ability to render scientific advice regarding the minor children and parents. It is important to note regardless of whether a court appoints a GAL, custody evaluator, or both, it is crucial that both parents cooperate with their requests and treat them with respect throughout the litigation process.
What Should You Expect When a GAL or Custody Evaluator Is Appointed?
Both a GAL and a custody evaluator will want to examine factors pertinent to what is in the best interests of the children, including those listed above. They will complete a comprehensive evaluation of both parties and their children. There are a few things a parent should expect to occur for a custody evaluator:
- Initial Interviews: Parents should anticipate that the GAL/evaluator will want to first meet one-on-one with each parent to discuss their relationship with their child, including the role the parent has played in that child’s life thus far. A GAL/evaluator will likely ask parents for additional evidence regarding the child, including their school records and progress reports, to support information a parent provides during their interview.
- Home Visits/Observations: The GAL/evaluator will likely visit each parent’s home at least once to observe the child’s integration in their home environment and the parent’s interaction with them. Specifically, the GAL/evaluator will want to observe the types of boundaries parents set for their child and signs indicating a stable home environment for the child. The GAL/evaluator will also likely ask questions about each parent’s parenting style and values a parent believes are important in raising their child.
- Interviews With Other Key Individuals: During your initial interview, the GAL/evaluator will likely ask for names of other individuals who play a significant role in the child’s life. Typically this includes teachers, coaches, daycare providers, close relatives, and/or significant others. The GAL/evaluator will then reach out to these individuals to ask about their observation of each of the parents with the child. This will give the GAL/evaluator a different perspective as to the relationship between a parent and child.
- Other Testing: A custody evaluator may ask parents to undergo psychological or drug testing in addition to their own evaluation. These types of testing are common in instances when one parent is alleging the other abuses drugs or alcohol or has anger management or other emotional issues.
What Happens After the Investigation is Complete?
Both GALs and custody evaluators will prepare a written report summarizing their findings, interviews with parents and other individuals, and home visit observations to the court. The report will also contain the GAL/evaluator’s opinion as to what is in the best interests of the child given their findings and observations. Although, as noted above, a judge does not have to adopt a custody evaluator’s recommendations, the judge will typically give a lot of weight to the reports. If a report is not written in a parent’s favor, that parent’s attorney will often try to show defects in the evaluation, including an evaluator’s lack of experience or point to facts not taken into account in the evaluator’s report.
Hire an Experienced South Carolina Custody Attorney Today!
Preparing and going through custody evaluations in contested custody cases can be an overwhelming and emotionally draining process. To ensure you are represented fully and effectively, you should hire the experienced Greenville, South Carolina family law attorneys at Elliott Frazier Law Firm, LLC. Our skilled South Carolina family law attorneys can help you prepare for a custody evaluation and understand its implications for your case. Contact us today for a case evaluation!
Angela Elliot Frazier is a Family Law Attorney who practices in Greenville, SC. She graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law, and has been practicing law for 14 years now. Angela Frazier believes in helping you through one of the most stressful times of your life. Learn more about her experience by clicking here.