Custody cases can get complicated. A judge (or a child's parents if they can agree) must decide on a custody arrangement that serves a child's needs. Sometimes judges or parents will turn to a Guardian Ad Litem to ensure that a child's best interests are met in a case involving child custody.
Guardian Ad Litems (also called "GALs" or "guardians") are court-appointed special representatives for children or incapacitated adults who need their rights protected in court.
GALs are also referred to as court guardians because they act as the child's voice in court. If you're involved in a custody dispute, divorce, neglect, abuse, or paternity case, a judge may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to represent your child's interests.
GALs are trained professionals and are usually attorneys. However, unlike your attorney, a Guardian Ad Litem serves as the child's advocate – not the parents' – during a divorce, custody, or paternity trial.
A Guardian Ad Litem will need to understand your family's unique dynamics to represent your child's best interests in court. This means a GAL will schedule interviews with each parent and child. Some interviews may be conducted separately so that a guardian can obtain a child's views without parental interference.
In addition, the Guardian Ad Litem may ask to schedule visits or interviews with a child's extended family members or therapists. A GAL may also review a child's medical records, school report cards, and therapist notes when appropriate. Essentially, a Guardian Ad Litem will need sufficient information about a child's background, upbringing, and well-being to make a recommendation to the court.
A GAL's focus it to understand the full picture of the child's well-being in each parent's care. A Guardian Ad Litem may evaluate many of the same factors a judge will consider in a custody case when determining a child's best interests.
Specifically, a GAL may examine each parent's relationship with the child, the child's relationship with siblings and extended family members, the child's ties to school and the community, each parent's stability and physical and mental health, and either parent's history of domestic violence, if any.
A Guardian Ad Litem also wants to understand a child's preferences for custody and to report those preferences to a judge. A GAL will say what a child is unable to in court. In most cases, judges try to keep children out of their parents' court cases. However, a GAL can obtain a child's testimony and feelings regarding custody outside of the courtroom and present it to a judge at the parents' custody trial.
There's no hard and fast rule for when a judge will appoint a GAL in your case. In cases involving a termination of parental rights or child neglect or abuse, a judge will almost always appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to ensure that a child's voice is heard. However, in other situations, such as where a child is old enough to express a preference or there's no history of abuse, a Guardian Ad Litem may not be necessary.
A GAL's appointment is at a judge's discretion. Judges use Guardian Ad Litems to help them determine what kind of custody and/or visitation arrangement will serve the child's best interests.
Parents can request a GAL to be appointed in their case, but a judge will ultimately decide if it's necessary or appropriate. Some states require Guardian Ad Litems to be appointed automatically when the case involves any allegations of abuse. Some judges will routinely appoint GALs when custody is at issue.
A parent requesting the appointment of a GAL should be aware that in most cases, a Guardian Ad Litem's work isn't free. Parents are usually responsible for paying the Guardian Ad Litem's bill which can total several hundreds or even thousands of dollars depending on the amount of time put into the case. Moreover, the GAL is a child advocate and only represents the child's interests – not his or her parents' interests.
Some guardians spend a few weeks working on a case, while others may be involved for months. A Guardian Ad Litem's role and involvement in your case will depend on your family's unique circumstances.
For example if you and your spouse share one child, are both loving and responsible parents with no history of abuse, a GAL may not need to do too much research and evidence collecting in your case. By contrast, parents with several children, a history of domestic violence and neglect charges, and evidence of the children struggling, might require the GAL to perform a lot of research and interviews to get to the bottom of the child's struggles and needs.
In most cases, a Guardian Ad Litem will perform whatever interviews or research is necessary before making a recommendation to the judge. The GAL may be part of your case for months and attend several hearings or may have a quick role and submit his or her findings as a written report. Ultimately, the GAL's role will be dictated by your family's circumstances and your child's needs.