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The Use of Expert Witnesses in Child Custody Cases

UPDATED: October 11, 2012

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Expert witnesses can be used in child custody cases to help parties convince the court that they should be granted custody. An expert witness will offer evidence that the child is in need of one of the parents' attention and care in particular, or they may help show that the custody should not go to the other parent because being with the other parent would not be in the child's best interest. For this reason, an expert witness is often worth what can sometimes be a significant expense during a child custody disagreement.

An expert witness can help you accomplish a variety of tasks. The witness may examine the child to get a better understanding of the child's particular needs in order to communicate them to the court. Or, an expert witness can analyze the mental health of one or the other parents or parties in the case. This use of an expert witness may serve to provide the court with information about the ability of an adult to parent. An expert witness might also analyze the financial assets of an adult in the case, or the earning potential of one of the parents. This may help the court determine how much child support the parents should pay.

Expert Witness Credentials

Many people believe that only a licensed professional, such as a psychologist, can testify as an expert witness. This is not true. Any person with special knowledge about a relevant issue in a case can testify as an expert witness. Certain licensed professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists, are specially trained to testify as expert witnesses. 

Since many different types of people can testify as an expert witness, there is no limitation as to what an expert witness can discuss. A grandparent who has cared for a child since birth can discuss the child’s personality and daily routine. A special education teacher who has evaluated the academic progress of a developmentally disabled child can show that the child’s educational needs are being met. A psychologist or psychiatrist who has analyzed the mental health of a parent can explain why that parent is unfit to care for the child.

In order for the court to recognize a witness as an expert witness, the party presenting the witness must qualify the witness. Qualifying involves asking the witness a series of questions to show what special knowledge the witness possesses. When a witness is a licensed professional, the witness is expected to discuss the academic degrees possessed and to provide a brief account of professional history. Qualifying a witness also involves asking questions that show how the witness’s special knowledge pertains to the case before the court.

Expert Witness Testimony

The testimony of an expert witness must relate to a relevant issue in the case. In a child custody case, the central issue is always, “What is in the best interest of the child?” A child’s wellbeing is dependent on many factors. The court typically considers evidence that relates to a child’s need to be loved and cared for, receive education and guidance, live in a stable environment, and remain physically and mentally healthy. In some situations, depending on the child’s age and mental abilities, the court also considers evidence regarding the preference of the child.

An expert witness usually offers testimony in a hearing or trial. The judge or jury regards the expert witness’s testimony as one of many pieces of evidence in the case. Just as is true of any witness, an expert witness can be cross-examined. Expert witnesses are not uncommon in child custody cases, and it is not unheard of for both parties to hire multiple expert witnesses when a child has extensive needs. 

Costs of Hiring Expert Witnesses

The cost of an expert witness can range from very little to hundreds of dollars per hour for a psychologist. Typically, an expert witness must be compensated for time spent evaluating records, speaking to a client regarding findings, expenses incurred to come to court, and time spent testifying before the court. It is permissible for the party who has not hired the expert witness to ask the amount of the expert witness’s fee. The amount the expert was paid to give their opinion can then be used to show the court that the expert may be biased. Biased means that the expert might have a motive to testify in the way they did that was not related to the facts, or that the expert may have been motivated to testify in the way they did by the prospect of earning a significant sum of money.

Despite the possibility of appearing biased, the testimony of an expert witness can be extremely valuable in child custody cases, which are typically cases in which emotions run high. An expert witness will present a calm, reasoned opinion, which can add credibility to a reasonable argument.

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