Can I hire a social investigator or evaluator without an attorney? Do I have to adopt their recommendations? What is the difference between a social investigation and an evaluation? What happens after the report is complete?
These are commonly asked questions by people going through divorces. Here is some information that hopefully takes some of the mystery (and anxiety) out of the situation:
A social investigation or evaluation is an information-gathering process that is designed to assist the parties and the court. The parties will choose, or the court will appoint if the parties can't agree, someone who has experience interviewing children and who is familiar with family law to interview the parents and children involved in a "custody" (we now call it "timesharing" in Florida) dispute. Because it is an informal process, many people feel that they have more and better opportunity to be heard than they do in court. The evaluator will make recommendations to the parents and the Court about what timesharing schedule is in the child(ren)'s best interest.
A social investigator is similar to a guardian ad litem, but different rules apply to GALs. Likewise, a social investigation is similar to an evaluation, but they are governed by different rules. The scope of an evaluation may be more limited than a social investigation, depending on the judge's order.
There are state-specific laws and rules that guide the investigator/evaluator, but the processes can vary widely from person to person. An evaluator should meet both parents and the children involved. Be sure to ask up front what the cost of the evaluation is, who will be paying for it, and what that includes. The evaluator should be able to give you very specific answers to these questions. If not, shop around for another one.
Parents can hire an evaluator even if they are not represented by attorneys. Some parents choose to do this to help them figure out what the best schedule is for their children. In those situations, the parents will usually agree on who will conduct the investigation and agree in advance of the investigation to adopt the recommendations.
The investigator will provide both parents with a written report of their findings and recommendations when they have completed their investigation. Absent an agreement up front to abide by an investigator's recommendations, parents do not have to comply with the recommendations.
If the parents do not agree with the recommendations, they can be challenged in court. In that situation, the evaluator will testify about his/her recommendations and a judge will decide what timesharing schedule to implement. Parents must comply with a court-ordered timesharing schedule.
The bottom line is, try not to be fearful of an investigation or evaluation. These processes are in place to try to do what's best for your children. Some parents recognize that the emotion of the situation may be impacting their ability to determine what the best schedule may be. And, it is often helpful to see how an outsider will view your circumstances. An evaluation is probably the best indicator of what a judge is likely to do, if you go to court.