What does a guardian ad litem do?
In family court, guardian ad litem (or GAL as they are sometimes referred) is a person who 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. Guardian means a person who acts to protect or help someone. Ad litem means for the lawsuit.
The guardian ad litem is not a guardian of a child. The role of a guardian is entirely different. A guardian, or custodian, is a person who has “custody” of a child and acts in the role of a parent. They make decisions about the child and pays for the child’s needs. This is not the role of the guardian ad litem.
The guardian ad litem is an independent investigator. This means they don’t represent the child or either parent. Instead, they work for the court. 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.
The guardian ad litem, even if they are an attorney, is not a lawyer for the child. This means their recommendation about what is best for the child may not be what the child wants. It is the responsibility of the guardian ad litem to make a fair and impartial recommendation in the best interests of the child.
How does guardian ad litem work?
The guardian ad litem will talk to the child, the parents, other caregivers, family members, friends, teachers, counselors, and social workers. After interviewing and evaluating all the information for the case, the guardian ad litem puts together a written recommendation as to, in the case of a custody hearing, which living situation they believe is in the best interests of the child.
It’s essential to communicate effectively with the appointed guardian ad litem. The judge in a case does not have to do what the guardian ad litem recommends but will take the report very seriously. Respond to the requests of a guardian ad litem promptly. Be prepared to share relevant information with them, such as school records, medical records, certificates from parenting classes or police reports. Treat this as you would an important job interview. After all, you are interviewing for the most important job of your life: parent.
A guardian ad litem also is a human being. No one is perfect, and he or she will understand this. The guardian ad litem may bring up topics that the opposing party is stating make you an unfit parent. Don’t shy away from discussing this or get angry and start hurling accusations back and forth. It’s crucial for you to calmly and clearly state your side of the story.
Will a guardian ad litem be appointed in your case?
Some judges routinely appoint a guardian ad litem in every family law case, and others do not. In each state, there are usually certain circumstances that require the judge appoint a guardian ad litem, such as cases where the judge suspects the child may have been hurt, threatened, or neglected.
The cost of a guardian ad litem varies as well. In some cases, the guardian ad litem may work for free, in others, the court will state who must pay. If you receive public aid, have a legal aid lawyer or meager income, you will likely be able to waive the fee by filling out the appropriate paperwork.
It’s important to speak with your lawyer or contact the local bar association in your area to learn more about what might happen during your family court hearing, as laws vary widely by state.