This article was updated November 13th, 2019 by Angie Allen

The most heated issue in a divorce can be determining custody of minor children. If divorcing spouses are unable to reach an agreement on custody and parent time, then it can take more time for the divorce to be finalized. If, after negotiations and mediation, the parties are unable to reach an agreement on custody and parent time, the judge will probably order them to have a custody evaluation performed.

What is a custody evaluation?

A custody evaluation is a process where who has custody of children is determined. This involves hiring a psychologist or social worker to evaluate both parents and the children and make a recommendation to the judge on custody and parent time. Based off the results of the evaluation, the evaluator makes a recommendation to the judge on custody and parent time.

A custody evaluation takes at least two to three months to complete, and each evaluator conducts his or her evaluations differently. Some evaluators rely on psychological testing, while others use almost none. Some evaluators are more concerned about having parents respond to hypothetical questions about parenting situations to assess the parents’ parenting skills.

The evaluator almost always makes at least one visit to each home to evaluate the living arrangements.  Most evaluators have the parents make several appointments with the evaluator at his or her office and usually have the parent bring the children to at least one of these appointments.

How is custody decided?

The evaluator makes his or her recommendation based on several factors including:

  1. the level of bonding between each parent and the children
  2. which parent provided the most care for the children during the marriage
  3. the preferences of older children
  4. each parent’s character and fitness
  5. the willingness of each parent to facilitate and encourage a relationship between the children and the other parent

Although minor children don’t get to choose who they stay with, their opinions are taken into consideration when determining who gets custody.

Once the evaluation is complete, the commissioner will have a custody evaluation settlement conference with the parents. This is an opportunity for the parties to meet with the court commissioner and the custody evaluator, discuss the evaluation, and try to settle the custody issues. If the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the matter is set for trial.

Physical custody v. legal custody

It’s important to note that there is a difference between physical and legal custody. Although most parents have joint custody, meaning both parents spend time with children and make decisions for their children, there is a difference.

Physical custody is exactly what it sounds like – this is where the children live. Legal custody is who can make decisions for the children, such as medical and education decisions. The judge can award sole or joint physical and legal custody as they see fit.

How standard parent time is determined in Utah

In Utah, standard parent time is described in two statutes. Usually, one parent is the “custodial parent” and the other is the “noncustodial parent.” Here is a breakdown of standard parent time for noncustodial parents:

  • Every other weekend from the time the children get out of school on Friday (or as soon as the parent can pick up the children) until Sunday night at 7:00 p.m.
  • One weeknight a week, from the time the children get out of school until 8:30 p.m.  The noncustodial parent can choose the day for this parent time.  If the noncustodial parent does not make a choice, this weeknight visit will occur on Wednesdays.
  • Four weeks of parent time during the summer.  Two weeks of this parent time is uninterrupted so the noncustodial parent can take a vacation with the children.
  • Half of the children’s Christmas vacation each year.
  • Half of the other holidays each year, according to a schedule created by the Utah Legislature.

The current consensus among custody evaluators is that the children need a strong bond with both parents, and this minimum parent-time schedule is not enough time with both parents to form that strong bond.  Most custody evaluators will recommend that both parents get more than the standard parent-time with the children.

We understand that custody can be difficult and that you value your time with your children. If you’re fighting to get custody for your children, contact Helgesen, Houtz and Jones today for a free consultation. We’ve handled hundreds of cases for our clients and are happy to help you get the time with your children that you want.