Parents typically try to keep their children out of the middle of their legal disputes. Sometimes it feels, however, that with Mom fighting for her position and Dad fighting for his position, no one is talking about what the child really needs. The good news is that there is a way to appoint a professional whose job it is to advocate solely for what is best for the child. That professional is called a Guardian Ad Litem.
The job of a Guardian ad Litem (or GAL) is to be the legal advocate for a child. This generally takes a couple of forms. First, the GAL typically completes a walk-through of each parent’s home and speaks with both parents and anyone else who spends considerable time with the child. The GAL speaks with anyone necessary to fully assess the issues which are in dispute and impact the best interests of the child. The third parties should be people in the child’s life who have firsthand knowledge about this child, such as teachers, doctors, and childcare providers. While parents want to provide as much “ammunition” as possible for the GAL and may be inclined to suggest the GAL speak with their best friend or a grandparent, those individuals will actually not add much to the GAL’s investigation. Additionally, parents should be warned that asking the GAL to speak with everyone they know could substantially increase their GAL fees and may backfire if individuals reveal that they have no idea why they have been recommended to speak with the GAL or may have a tenuous relationship with the parent.
In addition, the GAL often learns the views, concerns and opinions of the child by talking with the child at home and/or at school and relays the child’s views to the court. This eliminates the need to have the child involved in the court process. Following their investigation, the GAL makes recommendations to the court about what outcome would be in the best interests of the child. The GAL can testify instead of the child testifying in court or meeting with the judge privately.
A GAL is appointed by a court using a special court order which describes the job of the GAL and generally gives the GAL the right to request important records and information like education and medical records. The GAL can help to look at the big picture of the child’s situation beyond the legal position of either parent. This outside view is sometimes different than what either parent sees. The perspective of the GAL can help educate both parents as well as the court about what a child is experiencing and how the situation in the family is impacting the child.
The appointment of a GAL is not automatic and generally requires a request made to the court and the issuance of a court order. The court may choose to have a court hearing to determine if a GAL is necessary, especially if one parent objects. Once appointed, the GAL attends all court hearings regarding the child and advocates for what would best serve the child. Sometimes this agrees with the views of the parents and sometimes it does not. At the end of the day, the sole concern for the GAL is the best interests of the child. The GAL becomes the voice of the child and ensures that the child’s interests are not forgotten while the court decides important legal issues.
Most parents want what is best for their child, and few parents want to involve their child in a court proceeding. Asking for the appointment of a GAL allows the child’s voice to be present without the scary and scarring experience of coming into the courtroom where their parents may be adversaries.