Guardian ad litem is a person whom the court appoints to act as an independent investigator and make recommendations as to what solutions would be in the best interests of a child or person with a disability in a case that involves them. Guardian means a person who acts to protect or help someone. Ad litem means for the lawsuit.
An attorney, lawyer or attorney-at-law is a member of the legal profession who represents a client in court when pleading or defending a case.
In a child custody case, the two roles are very different.
The guardian ad litem is an independent investigator. This means they don’t represent the child, a parent or the court. They talk to the child, the parents, family members, friends, teachers, social workers, and others and then put together a written recommendation as to what living situation they believe makes the most sense in the best interests of the child.
The recommendation of the guardian ad litem may not be what the child or either of the parents want. The guardian ad litem will let the court know if his or her recommendation differs from what the child wants, but at the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the guardian ad litem to make a fair and impartial recommendation. The judge in a case does not have to do what the guardian ad litem recommends but will take the report very seriously.
An attorney, on the other hand, represents a party in the case, a parent or the child. He or she is acting as a legal advocate on behalf of the person he or she is representing. The attorney’s job is to convince the court that the living arrangement his or her client wants, be it the child or parent, is the right one.
A person serving as guardian ad litem may be an attorney but does not have to be. Volunteer advocates and non-attorney licensed professionals, such as counselors and social workers, can serve as guardian ad litem. Laws vary between states as to whether one person can serve as both an attorney for a child in the case and guardian ad litem.
To learn more about the responsibilities and requirements of a guardian ad litem in your state, check with your local bar association.