Law Tips: Family Law, Part 3

ICLEF LAW TIPS #40

Preparing Your Client for the Custody Evaluation 

“An attorney’s job does not end when the evaluator is selected” – a seasoned reminder from ICLEF Family Law faculty member Lana Pendoski, Newton, Becker, Bouwkamp & Pendoski, Indianapolis.  I’m appreciative of her  practical advice on preparing your client for a custody evaluation as an addition to our current Law Tips series.

Proper preparation can give your client an advantage in presenting his/her information and views to the custody evaluator or parent coordinator (PC). Because the custody evaluator is a mental health professional and so often is the PC, clients view the process as counseling. First and foremost the client must understand neither process is confidential. An order appointing a parenting coordinator often states very clearly it is not a confidential process.

People are judged by their appearance. We can talk about how wrong that is, but it happens.  Clients should be told how to dress. It may seem like a no-brainer, but tell the client to be on time. A missed appointment or showing up late can feed into all sorts of assumptions from lazy and unorganized to suggestions of substance abuse. I recommend clients wear casual but conservative clothing.

As in testifying in deposition or court, there are some bad words such as absolutes (“Never!”), qualifiers (“I’ll be honest with you”), and answers that suggest dishonesty/lies of omission (“I don’t recall”).  Calling the other parent (or his family) names say more about the client casting the dispersions than the parent being criticized. Responding too harshly to criticism from the other parent can indicate there is some truth to the allegation or that a parent doesn’t respond well to reasonable criticism.

The purpose of the custody evaluation is not just to show how horrible the other parent is, it is also an opportunity to explain why your client is a good parent. Rather than focusing solely on tallying the sins of  the other parent, be sure to advise a client to convey his strengths as a parent and his connection to the children.  The parent who is second to meet with the evaluator may have to respond to allegations by the other parent. A client should be prepared to respond to allegations but also redirect a portion of the interview to discussing his/her personal strengths. I ask clients to provide a list of the ten worst things the other parent will say about them in order to prepare for the allegations and to formulate a measured response.

This process is a custody evaluation; it is not about the demise of the marriage. Clients need to keep “the best interest of the children” in the forefront of information conveyed to the custody evaluator.  Some information, such as domestic violence witnessed by the children, may naturally be presented but who is at fault for the divorce should not be the focus of discussions.

Clients may want to write down their thoughts and organize what they want to say prior to any interviews.  However, a client should not bring a written list of grievances or issues to a custody evaluation.

It is better to offer examples of behavior or to describe how situations are dealt with and allow the  professional to label the other parent, if warranted.  Encourage clients to leave the Internet research regarding Narcissistic Personality Disorder at home. Offering psychological diagnoses or categorization of behavior (“he’s OCD!”) isn’t helpful.

An attorney’s job does not end when the evaluator is selected. An attorney can guide a client through the process and, when necessary, step in to avoid or smooth over any missteps. I ask a client to contact me after each phase of the custody evaluation. Often clients will call in a panic that they forgot to provide important information or that they were unintentionally misleading.  When this occurs, I may recommend a client do one of three things:

(1) Request an additional meeting or telephone consult with the custody evaluator;

(2) Provide an e-mail (after my review and revision) with the missing or correct information; or

(3) Provide me with the information and I will convey it in a letter. I firmly believe it is a mistake to have ex parte communication with a custody evaluator, so in this instance I would copy opposing counsel on my letter to the evaluator or PC.

Hopefully, Lana Pendoski’s reminders on preparing your client for the custody evaluation were fruitful. If you wish to take advantage of her further advice on
The Essentials of Family Law, the CLE  Online/On Demand Video is available from ICLEF – Click Here.

Additionally, if you haven’t already reserved your spot, you will want to be sure to take a look at the popular, comprehensive program for the 10th Annual Family Law Institute just around the corner on October 18 and 19.

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About our Law Tips faculty member:
Lana Pendoski, Newton, Becker, Bouwkamp and Pendoski, Indianapolis, focuses her practice in family law, litigation, estate planning and family law mediation. She holds a B.S. in clinical psychology from Ball State University and is a graduate of Valparaiso University School of Law.  She frequently speaks to groups of mental health professionals to provide timely and relevant legal in-service training.  Her community participation includes serving on the Professional Advisory Committee of Buchanan Pastoral Counseling as well as on the Board of Directors of the Indiana State Wrestling Association.

About our Law Tips blogger:
Nancy Hurley, Law Tips blogger, has long-standing connections with Indiana lawyers. She was formerly a member of the ISBA and IBF staffs for over 30 years. Nancy’s latest lifestyle venture is with ICLEF. We are utilizing her exceptional writing and interviewing skills while exploring how her Indiana-lawyer background fits with ICLEF’s needs. When she isn’t ferreting out new topics for Law Tips, her work can be found in our Speaker Spotlight blogs, postings on the ICLEF Facebook page, Twittering and other places her legal experience lends itself.

Thank you for reading Law Tips. You may subscribe to this weekly blog through the RSS link at the top of this page. You are encouraged to comment below or contact Nancy.   She enjoys hearing from readers and welcomes your input as she continues to sift through the treasure trove of knowledge of our CLE faculty to share with you on Law Tips.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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