It's common to hear about marriages ending in divorce, but it may surprise you to learn that divorces involving children are even more prevalent. For example, 61% of couples divorcing from a first marriage have children under the age of 18.
When the child has a relationship with both parents and custody is being litigated, this creates a unique situation for the courts to determine what custody or visitation schedule is best for the childr(ren). Sometimes, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) to ensure the best interests of the child(ren). So, what is a guardian ad litem? And how does it affect how custody determined? Here's what you need to know.
What Is a Guardian Ad Litem?
A guardian ad litem (GAL) protects a child's interests during a legal process, such as a custody case. The term "guardian ad litem" is Latin for "guardian for the purpose of litigation." This means the court typically doesn’t appoint GALs until there is pending litigation. They are more commonly appointed in high-conflict custody cases.
These roles are meant to help protect children's rights and desires while ensuring they receive adequate representation during court proceedings that determine their future. Ultimately, a GAL is a non-biased advocate for children and is not affiliated with either parent or their attorneys.
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What Does a Guardian Ad Litem Do?
The role of a Guardian Ad Litem varies based on the case type and jurisdiction. For example, some Guardians Ad Litems work with abused or neglected or children involved in dependency cases (where parents cannot provide adequate care). Often, these children are in foster care. A Guardian Ad Litem can also be appointed if there is uncertainty around custody or maintenance of minor children or high-conflict custody cases between two parents.
Guardian Ad Litems…
● Are uniquely trained to work with children and families
● Conduct interviews with the parents, children, and other family members
● Gather evidence
● Consult with healthcare providers, teachers and law enforcement/ DSS
● Write reports for presentation to a judge in custody hearings
● Make recommendations of what the GAL believes is in the child’s best interests
● And more!
They must also meet ongoing training and other requirements outlined by their state agency or court.
What Does a Guardian Ad Litem Look For When Investigating a Custody Case?
The guardian ad litem will interview parents and children involved in the case to get their perspectives on what custodial schedule is in the best interests of the child(ren). They will look for information which may help them decide visitation schedules, custody arrangements, etc.
As they investigate, they'll consider several factors:
● The mental and physical health of each parent and any other adults living in the home with the children
● Whether there are allegations of physical or sexual abuse toward the children
● Whether either parent suffers from addiction to alcohol or substance abuse issues
● Whether there was domestic violence in the home or witnessed by the child(ren
● The financial resources of each parent and any other adults in the home with the children
● How the child(ren) relate to each parent
● Whether either parent has attempted to alienate the child(ren) from the other parent
Can a Guardian Ad Litem Recommend Sole Custody?
The guardian ad litem's job isn't to decide what kind of custody arrangement would benefit the child (that's the judge's job). Instead, the guardian ad litem gathers essential information about the child and family and then provides recommendations to the court.
The guardian ad litem investigates the case's circumstances, interviews witnesses, and reviews medical records. The GAL then prepares a written report with recommendations to guide decisions about what's best for the child.
The court will give a GAL's recommendations substantial weight. However, a GAL does have some authority to make decisions on behalf of a child. For example, the GAL can recommend that a judge award custody or visitation rights to one parent over another, but the Court must still make the ultimate decision.
Do You Have Questions About Your Custody Case or Need to Know More about Guardian Ad Litem?
A Guardian Ad Litem is simply a person who can help determine what's best for the child in a custody case. If you're an adult in a child's life and you're worried your case might end up in family court, your best bet is to ensure you're informed before your hearings. Spidell Family Law’s skilled, compassionate team is here to help no matter where you are in the process.