If you are a fan of shows like CSI or Law and Order you are probably familiar with the idea of an expert witness.  In those cases experts are called to analyze blood splatter patterns, or to determine whether a criminal is insane.  But expert witnesses are not only useful in criminal cases, in fact they play an important role in many areas of the law, including family law.  This article highlights some of the most common expert witnesses you will come across in family law cases of divorce, custody and support. 


            Before talking about the common types of expert witnesses in family law cases, it is important to understand what an expert witness is and what they do.  A expert witness is someone with a specialized knowledge, skill, or education.  They are necessary when the level of knowledge about a subject goes beyond what an average person would know.  They can be used in court, in settlements, or just to assist your attorney with a better understanding of your case.  The job of the expert is to evaluate the issue using their “expert knowledge” to assist people that make the decisions about your case.  These are the experts most commonly used in divorce, custody, and support cases:


Forensic AccountantExpert Witnesses in Family Law Cases


            A forensic accountant uses accounting principals to uncover information from financial documents.  This type of expert witness can be particularly useful in cases where you suspect your spouse is not fully disclosing the amount of money within their control.  For instance, a forensic accountant could detect offshore accounts that would then be subject to equitable distribution during the divorce.  They can also determine lifestyle costs in cases of spousal support, of the full amount of a person’s income if it is not all reported.


Business Valuation Expert


            A business valuation expert is similar to a forensic accountant in the sense that they use financial tools to render their opinion, but they also have an added level of specialization that allows them to calculate the value of businesses.  These experts are used in cases where one spouse acquired an ownership interest in a business during the marriage that must be determined before it can be divided.  In other situations there may be a family business jointly owned by husband and wife that must be evaluated.  The expert can look at business records to determine how much the company is worth and how much it would cost one spouse to buy out the other. 


Psychological Expert


            In custody cases the most common expert witness is a psychological expert.  These experts have a dual function and can be used to evaluate both parents and children.  With respect to parents a psychological expert may be used to determine if the parent has the parental capacity to have custody.  In other words, is that person “fit” to be a good parent.  This can involve looking for narcissistic tendencies or other mental health issues that may inhibit a person’s ability to be a suitable parent.  Equally important is the role psychological experts play in the evaluation of children during custody proceedings.  After spending time with the child the psychological expert will be able to provide information about the child’s needs from their parent and environment.  For example, the amount of stability necessary for a child will depend on factors that can be deduced by the psychological expert.  Additionally, these experts can discern the effect of a traumatic emotional or physical injury suffered by a child.  For instance, if there is a history of a parent yelling in front of the child the psychological expert would be able to communicate the effect of that on the child’s long-term development.  This ability to communicate psychological effects is necessary to ensure the judge makes the proper decision regarding custody.


Employment Expert


            In cases of spousal support the employment expert plays a major role in determining the amount of support that will be ultimately awarded.  Employment experts assess the spouse seeking support in order to calculate their actual earning potential.  This is useful in cases where spouses are purposely not working to their full capacity in order to increase the amount of support that they are awarded.  Employment experts can use background information about a person, their employment history, and information about the local job market to calculate what that person should be able to earn.  Virginia is unique in that it grants employment experts the right to interview the spouse, meaning they must comply.  In cases of spousal support employment experts are essential to ensuring the spouse seeking support is not awarded an unfair amount.


            Hopefully, this overview has provided you with the information necessary to contemplate the role experts may play in your case.  While this article has detailed some of the most common experts used in family law, the possibilities are limitless and unique situations will call for specialized experts.  The attorneys at Smith Strong, PLC regularly engage expert witnesses to assist in cases of divorce, custody, and support.  If you would like to learn more about the role of expert witnesses or suspect that an expert witness could have altered the outcome of your case please call one of our offices at 804-325-1245 (Richmond) or 757-941-4298 (Williamsburg).