In cases involving children and disputes over issues like custody and possession, a court can order a variety of pre-trial matters to take place which are aimed at helping the court decide these issues. Some of these matters can take the form of evaluations, classes, or counseling for the parties and the children. Today, I would like to focus on social studies and their role in family law litigation.
When there is a dispute regarding children, the court will likely order a social study to evaluate the best interests of the children by investigating the circumstances of the children, the parents, relatives or friends, and their relationship with the children. The focus is typically on the home environment of the children, and the court will appoint someone to evaluate this upon proper motion of a party to the lawsuit.
The social study evaluator can come from different sources, whether public or private. In cases where the parties have limited financial resources, the court may order that a public entity perform the study such as the court’s domestic relations office. If the parties can afford a private evaluator, the court will consider appointing an evaluator who has more extensive education or training and experience, as long as the person is approved by the court.
The purpose of a social study is to compare the parties’ parenting abilities, living arrangements, and relationships with the children through interviews with the parties themselves and any other people who have observed them, such as family members, neighbors, teachers, coaches, and doctors. The social study evaluator will observe each party in session, then the children, and then each party and the children to closely evaluate the relationships between each of them. The aim of the social study is for the evaluator to get a better idea of these relationships and to ultimately make a recommendation on how the court should resolve the dispute between the parties as to things like custody and possession.
As for the costs of the social study, the public entities performing the evaluation will usually have a set fee for the evaluations, while each private evaluator will have their own customized fee. The responsibility of paying for the social study is left up to the court hearing the case. Sometimes, the fees are split 50/50, while other times the party requesting the social study is required to pay for it.
Once the social study is completed, the evaluator will render a written evaluation and opinion which will be distributed to the parties’ attorneys for review. The social study is typically filed with the court and becomes part of the record for the case, leaving each party free to use it as evidence in a later hearing or trial. The evaluator can be called to testify at these later hearings, and their evaluation and opinion can be questioned at this time.
Social studies serve as a useful tool in family law cases to give guidance to the court as to possible orders to make regarding the children and the parents. While they sometimes can be expensive, they can give the parties and their attorneys insight into the details of the relationship between the parents and the children in the case. The need for a social study in a disputed family law case involving children can be vital to all parties involved to give an independent third party evaluation of the best interests of the children the subject of the litigation.