Understanding the Guardian ad Litem
If you become involved in a child custody dispute, you may hear the term Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”). It’s important to understand the GAL’s role in a child custody dispute.
What is a Guardian ad Litem?
“Guardian ad Litem” is Latin for “Guardian for the Suit”, meaning the pending lawsuit. The purpose of a GAL is to protect a person’s interest when that person cannot adequately protect themselves in a lawsuit; in the case of a GAL the unprotected person is the minor child involved. While the parties certainly have their own opinions and wishes, a GAL is appointed to help ensure the child’s best interests are considered by the court.
A GAL is someone who advocates for the best interest of the child. The GAL is usually a lawyer, but it may also be a non-attorney court-appointed special advocate (“CASA”). Their role is not to represent the child’s wishes, but to make recommendations to the court as to what they believe is in the child’s best interests. Sometimes those two things align, but if they conflict, the court may appoint a separate attorney to represent the child’s wishes. The court maintains a list of qualified GALs and will appoint one from that list, usually with some level of input from each party and their attorneys.
What does a Guardian ad Litem do?
Think of the GAL as an investigator. In order to determine what is in the best interest of the child(ren), they must collect evidence. They can spend more time on the case than what could ever be presented in court, and they are not bound by the rules of evidence. They are allowed access to medical and school records. They can come into the home and interview family. They can talk to teachers, doctors, coaches…they can reach out to anyone with direct knowledge of the child’s situation.
How does it work?
When a GAL is involved in a child custody dispute, the process will generally follow a very similar path:
- A GAL is appointed, usually at the request of one or both parties, but sometimes at the court’s request. If one party requests a GAL, that party usually pays for the GAL, unless there is a large disparity in income. In that case, the cost can be allocated at the end of the case.
- The GAL will send an introductory letter to both parties and schedule an initial meeting to discuss the issues and each party’s wishes and concerns.
- The GAL will review documents that each party has provided.
- The GAL will meet the child(ren) and conduct home visits at each party’s home. If the GAL needs to travel to visit a party who lives out of town, that party typically assumes the cost of travel.
- The GAL will contact any references provided by the parties. This could include family or close friends, teachers, or other professionals who may be close to the situation.
- Upon review of all the evidence, the GAL will prepare a report for the court summarizing their findings, with a recommendation to the court for custody to be awarded to one party or the other, or for shared parenting. The recommendation can also include a proposed parenting schedule or other specific recommendations, such as restricting contact with specific 3rd parties, obtaining different housing, choosing the school district, appropriate methods of communication between the parties, or anything else deemed necessary by the GAL.
- After the GAL submits their report, the pretrial can take place, and settlement offers might be made by either side based on the GAL’s recommendations.
Will the GAL be at my trial?
If your divorce case ends up going to trial, the GAL may or may not be present, and may or may not testify. Much of that depends on the specific court hearing the case and how your attorney chooses to proceed at trial. However, the GAL’s report will be submitted as evidence in the case. If the judge requests an “in camera” interview with the child (a confidential conversation in the judge’s chambers), the GAL will also attend.
Should I request a GAL?
Whether or not you should ask for a GAL in your child custody dispute will depend on many factors, and your divorce lawyer will be able to help you decide if one is needed. But it’s important to remember that even if you are the one requesting the GAL, the GAL will not advocate for you. The GAL’s only task is to advocate for what is in the best interest of the child. Knowing what to expect and being prepared to present your side of the case to the GAL is crucial.
The experienced divorce attorneys at Kirkland & Sommers can advise you on the pros and cons of requesting a GAL, the potential costs, and what to do if the other party requests the GAL. You will want to be as prepared as possible for a home visit and interview, and to do that, you need information. If you have child custody questions and would like to know more about the guardian ad litem’s role, schedule a free consultation today. We will walk you through the process, inform you of your options, and then stay by your side as you develop a plan for how to proceed. Give us a call or click the link below to schedule your free consultation today!