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Psychological Evaluations In Divorce And Family Law Cases


Divorce, child custody, paternity, and similar family law matters elicit strong emotions among those involved, and each party typically makes claims about the other person’s character, morals, or stability. Many times, statements like these are not material to the outcome of the case, but rather reflect the emotional upheaval these events cause. However, in some cases, there are legitimate concerns about a party’s mental state, and the opposing side may want a psychological evaluation to determine if there are serious issues that could impede the proceedings themselves or particular issues up for consideration, child custody being the most common. Serena Williams’ father, Richard Williams, is engaged in a drawn-out divorce battle with his wife of eight years that includes allegations of forgery, fraud, and theft. Making this case even more complicated, there are now questions about Williams’ competency to participate in the divorce case, which must be conducted by a doctor before it can proceed further. Competency and the fitness of a parent are two of the reasons psychological evaluations are conducted, and a discussion of how courts view these requests, as well as the influence of the reports on the outcome of a case, will follow below.

Basic Competence

Anytime a person makes a legal decision or participates in a legal proceeding, he/she must be competent enough to understand the nature of what is happening and the ability to respond to questions in a reasonable and accurate manner. Individuals involved in legal cases particularly need to understand the gravity and context of the case. This understanding is necessary to fully participate so their interests are adequately communicated and protected. In the case of Richard Williams, there is a question about his competency due to earlier appearances related to his divorce where he displayed difficulty understanding and responding to questions. In these cases, a psychological and medical exam will likely be requested, during which experts will assess the person’s mental capacity to make legally binding decisions. A report of their findings is then presented to each side and the judge. If found incompetent, a guardian would have to be appointed to represent the person’s interests, which adds a lot of time and complication to the completion of a divorce or other family law matter. While unusual in the context of most divorces, with more divorces involving older couples occurring, this issue could become more prevalent as issues of dementia and Alzheimer’s come into play. In fact, legal incapacity (incompetence) is grounds for divorce, but does require a waiting period to satisfied before this basis may be used.

Parental Fitness Concerns

The context in which psychological examination requests are most requested is when there are concerns about a parent’s fitness to share child custody. Before a court will order this type of exam, the request must relate to an issue that is relevant to the outcome of the case (the mental health of the parent, for example), and the request must be made in good faith, i.e., not to harass or punish the other spouse. Such requests can also be made to evaluate the need for therapeutic intervention to help a child deal with the stress of divorce, but again the child’s wellbeing specifically related to his/her parent’s divorce must be an issue before the court. If the court approves the request, compliance is mandatory, and if the report indicates the parent has mental issues that compromise his/her ability to care for the child, the court is likely to restrict parenting time, and may require all interactions with the child occur under the supervision of a third party.

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Building a strong divorce case takes evaluating a number of factors under the specific circumstances of your situation. The attorneys at the office of Joyce A. Julian, P.A. have the experience and attention to detail to place you in the best possible position walking into this process. Contact the Fort Lauderdale office to learn how they can help you.




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