You have likely seen television shows and movies in which expert witnesses take the stand and testify. This often involves forensic experts testifying in criminal cases, or engineers testifying in serious injury claims. However, you might never imagine that you might need experts for your child custody or child support case.
While expert evaluations or witnesses are not necessary in every case, this need might arise. You want to have the guidance of an experienced child custody attorney in the event you might need help from experts in your family law matter.
Custody and Support Cases
In some divorce cases, parents can compromise and agree on how they will share child custody, and they agree to abide by the child support guidelines set out by the law. In these situations, there is not a need for expert opinions or testimony, as the court will generally approve the parents’ agreement so long as it is in the best interests of the child.
On the other hand, some parents might have entirely different ideas of how to divide custody rights or who should pay what child support. These cases often require court intervention. Each parent – through their custody attorneys – will need to present their arguments for their positions to the family court. The judge will then rule on how to resolve the issues at hand based on all the evidence presented. Often, expert opinions can serve as strong and persuasive evidence in a contentious child custody or child support case.
Courts Have Significant Discretion in Determining Child Custody and Support
All decisions related to child custody are made in looking at the “best interests of the child.” Some of the specific things that the court will consider include:
- The health, safety, and welfare of the child
- Any history of abuse against a child, the other parent, or a parent, current spouse, cohabitant, of a person seeking custody, or a person with whom the parent or person seeking custody has a dating or engagement relationship
- The nature and amount of contact with each parent
- The use of drugs or alcohol
Importantly, the California Family Code directs courts to consider any factor they deem relevant, so this is far from an inclusive list. As a result, judges have extremely wide discretion when making decisions about child custody. This makes it critically important for anyone involved in a child custody dispute to retain an experienced attorney to represent them and advise them as to what steps they can take to maximize their chances of obtaining a favorable outcome.
In cases where one parent has primary custody, the noncustodial parent may be ordered to pay child support payments to the custodial parent. Like many states, California has guidelines that help determine how much child support the noncustodial parent must pay. The factors the guidelines use to arrive at a child support payment include:
- How much the parents earn or can earn
- The amount of income each parent has
- The number of children the parents have together
- The time-sharing arrangement
- Each parent’s tax filing status
- Whether there is support for the children from other relationships
- Health insurance costs
- Mandatory union dues
- Mandatory retirement contributions
- The cost of sharing daycare and health expenses not covered by insurance
- Other factors
While there is a presumption that the guidelines will provide the correct amount of child support, judges may deviate from the guidelines if the parties agree to a different arrangement or if other certain circumstances exist. In this case, you might need to enlist the help of financial experts to support your position that a different amount of child support should be ordered.
Court-Ordered Child Custody Evaluations
Sometimes, if the court must rule on child custody matters, the judge will order a custody evaluation under California Evidence Code Section 730, which governs expert witnesses. This evaluation can involve a court-appointed expert evaluator assessing each parent, the child’s relationship with each parent, the family in general, home life and living environments, and more. The evaluator’s goal is to create a report regarding what they believe would be in the best interests of the child.
Evaluators are often mental health experts, though a judge can request that more than one expert investigate the situation and provide their opinions. Such evaluators are expected to be impartial and present unbiased findings regarding the type of custody arrangement that would likely be best for a child.
If you need to undergo a 730 evaluation, you should prepare with your child custody attorney. They can let you know what to expect, what information you will need to give the evaluator, and more. These expert evaluations are often quite comprehensive and formal, and you should be prepared to give the expert the most accurate impression of your life and your parental abilities.
In addition, either parent can request a child custody evaluation by experts. If you believe that your child’s other parent is unfit, for example, you can request them to be evaluated, so you have expert evidence to present to the court. Your child’s other parent may also request that you undergo an expert evaluation.
What Type of Experts Can Help in a Child Support Case?
Expert witnesses are used less frequently in child support cases than in child custody cases, though they can be used to present evidence in some situations. For example, one parent might voluntarily stop working to try to avoid child support payments. If unemployment is voluntary, the court can impute income to that parent for the purposes of a child support order.
Occupational and financial experts can assess the parent’s earning ability based on their education, training, and experience. The court can then use this earning ability determined by experts to calculate what the monthly child support should be.
Most people do not have access to a network of family law experts, so it is important to have an experienced child custody and support lawyer handling your case. An attorney can help with every aspect of the process, including expert evidence.