Under Florida law, a judge can order a social investigation and study when the parents cannot agree to an appropriate parenting plan themselves and the court would like to see evidence about each parent to make a better-informed custody decision.
A parenting plan is a document that divides in detail parental responsibilities in a child custody case. For example, the plan must include:
- How the parents will share day-to-day care of the child
- Time-sharing schedule for daily life, school vacations, birthdays and holidays
- How the parents will share or divide major life decision-making responsibilities for the child in matters like education, religion, and mental and physical health
- Communication methods between the parents and child when they are apart
Role of the investigator
If the parents are unable to negotiate a parenting plan acceptable to the judge, then issues of custody and visitation are contested, and the judge must make these decisions. The social investigator will investigate each parent and his or her “pertinent details” that impact the child’s best interests.
The investigator provides a written report with recommendations to the court and to each party. The study must contain a “statement of facts” upon which the investigator based his or her recommendations. This report is automatically admissible as evidence in custody matters.
Each party, however, may present relevant evidence to the court that sheds light on the accuracy or reliability of the study.
Who can be the investigator?
The court may appoint as the social investigator:
- Qualified court staff
- Licensed child placement agency
- Licensed psychologist
- Clinical social worker
- Marriage and family therapist
- Licensed mental health counselor
If a parent presents adequate evidence to the court of indigence (being unable to pay court costs because of low income and assets) and the court does not have sufficient staff to conduct the study, the judge can ask the Department of Children and Families to do so. Otherwise, the parents have responsibility to pay the cost of the investigation and study as part of court costs.
Florida courts have said that the court cannot delegate to the social investigator the authority to make decisions about custody and parent access to children. The court may weigh and consider the investigator’s opinion and recommendation, but the ultimate decision can only be the judge’s.
At our law firm, we represent and advise parents about all matters related to custody and visitation, including undergoing and responding to social investigations and studies.
In our next post about professionals involved with the Florida divorce process, we will discuss the role of the guardian ad litem.