Use of Expert Witness Services

Expert witnesses can play a crucial role in many family law cases, whether before litigation, during litigation, or at trial. Sometimes complicating factors raise the stakes of the case beyond the “normal” family law situation. The case may involve significant or complex financial issues, a contentious or difficult child custody battle, international issues, or all of the above. This is when the services of an expert witness can make a big difference in the outcome of your case.

In complicated cases, the considered and experienced opinion of an expert can help produce a better negotiated settlement. The expert’s opinion can even help bring about an otherwise impossible settlement, thus avoiding the unpleasantness of a trial. And where a trial is unavoidable, the expert can help prepare and present a more compelling case to the court, sometimes even providing the missing piece the judge needs to make the right decision. Where the role of attorneys in a family law case is to build a factual and legal foundation for an outcome in their clients’ favor, a cornerstone of that foundation can be the services of an expert witness.

Types of Expert Witnesses in Family Law Cases

More than many other areas of law, family law matters encompass a wide range of issues. Family law cases frequently include issues of tax or business law as well as financial, social, health and emotional issues. And modern families often create connections that cross borders—whether between states or countries. It is therefore common to call on experienced professionals in a wide range of fields to lend their expertise to the resolution of family law disputes. Such experts include:

  • Forensic Accountants may be called to testify regarding financial aspects of the divorce such as whether property is marital or non-marital, or some combination and in what percentages. A forensic accountant is often required when valuation is complex, such as with commingled property or a retirement plan, or to trace assets when there is concern about one party concealing or improperly transferring marital property. Accountants can also help make tax consequences of complicated transactions or assets understandable, whether for settlement or for a judge’s ruling. Forensic accountants are usually Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), often with additional specialized training. They must not only possess subject matter knowledge but must be able to clearly explain complex financial concepts in a way laypeople can comprehend.
  • Business or Real Estate Appraisers may also serve as expert witnesses regarding the value of an interest in a closely held business or in real estate owned by one or both of the parties and subject to division in the divorce. These types of experts usually have advanced degrees or specialized licenses or recognitions.
  • Psychologists may perform fitness and forensic custody evaluations, evaluate relationships within the family, assess the parents’ mental health and parenting capabilities, and testify regarding whether a particular custody arrangement would be in the best interests of the children. A psychologist called as an expert witness typically has a doctoral degree in psychology and may have special training in child or family development.
  • Clinical Social Workers may also perform evaluations regarding custody and visitation and may offer opinions regarding whether sexual abuse, domestic violence, or other harmful dynamics are present within the family. Clinical social workers serving as expert witnesses typically have a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.
  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental health issues. Many psychiatrists who serve as expert witnesses in family law matters have a subspecialty in child or adolescent psychiatry. Because parental mental health and substance abuse issues are relevant to custody determinations, expert testimony from psychiatrists may address not only the children’s needs but the parents’ mental health fitness.
  • Other Medical Professionals such as pediatricians or emergency medicine physicians may be called on to interpret medical records, such as to opine as to whether certain injuries in the record were likely the result of physical abuse of a child.
  • Legal Experts can offer opinions on the laws of other states or countries and how they apply to different factual situations. They can also help the parties and judges understand the complexities that arise in specialized contexts, such as international organizations, interstate cases, and even international cases. Complexities of this type might include how divorce or pension rights or child support is handled in a foreign country, whether an asset is considered marital or non-marital, or the risk and consequences of an international child abduction.
  • Attorney Fee Experts are typically experienced attorneys whose background enables them to testify as to the reasonableness and necessity of attorney fees when one party in a family law case is requesting the court to order the other party to pay all or part of their attorney fees.

The Value of Expert Witnesses in Family Law Matters

An expert witness is an individual whose subject matter expertise gives them insight into an issue that an ordinary person lacks. Their in-depth knowledge can help a judge “connect the dots” regarding a legal issue (such as why a certain outcome would be in the best interests of the child in a case) and encourage, if not compel, the court to reach that conclusion.

In addition to an expert’s own depth of knowledge, an expert may base an opinion on “facts or data in the case that the expert has been made aware of or personally observed.” In other words, an expert may rely on helpful information that might not otherwise have been admissible under the rules that govern trials. That information may then come before the court as having helped to form the basis for the expert’s opinion.

Lastly, in many complex matters, one side will obtain an expert to support their case and thus, it becomes critically important for the other party to obtain their own expert to explore that expert’s reasoning and methodology and, if need be, defend against it. Interestingly enough, oftentimes, experienced family law attorneys will invite both parties' experts to speak and share their thoughts with one another in hopes that they can construct a mutually acceptable position on a particular subject. This can result in significant cost savings for both sides.

How We Help in Matters Requiring Expert Witnesses

The use of expert witnesses can have a profound impact on family law litigation, but the mere presence of an expert witness is insufficient. The witness must have exceptional knowledge and experience and a reputation and ethics that are beyond reproach, particularly when they must face off against an opposing expert. At Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield, we regularly litigate complex family law matters and have access to some of the most respected and accomplished expert witnesses in their fields.

Our attorneys are frequently called upon to serve as expert witnesses themselves by other family law attorneys regarding such issues as:

  • Prevention of international child abduction
  • International child abduction recovery
  • International divorce jurisdiction
  • Complex property distribution
  • Pension issues
  • General international family law issues
  • Attorney fees

In Maryland and the District of Columbia, where a significant international population lives, the services of an expert witness who has worked on international issues for decades, including at the U.S. State Department, can be invaluable. When that expert witness is himself an accomplished family law attorney, his knowledge of domestic and international law enables him to analyze and present precisely the information the parties or the court needs to make informed decisions.

To consult with a member of our family law team regarding expert witness services, or to learn more about how we can make strategic use of experts in your case, we invite you to contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to schedule a consultation.