My lawyer says that I do…..what is a Guardian Ad Litem?
In simple terms, a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) is an individual appointed by a family court to take care of the child’s best interest during a child custody case. The GAL has the authority to examine the child’s medical, school, and mental health records, interview the parents, teachers, doctors, and any other professional involved in the child’s life to make sound recommendations to the court on several issues. This is the simple definition. However, every GAL has a different method for conducting their investigation, so you must be prepared to share many significant details of your own and your soon-to-be ex’s relationship with the children, including:
A brief history of your relationship with your ex — The GAL does not want to hear every detail of your relationship, but they will be interested in knowing the circumstances that surround the two of you and both of your relationships with your kids.
What exactly brought you to the point of contested custody litigation — It is best to do what you can to spend your time with GAL discussing the facts, so he/she is adequately informed regarding your case.
Your parenting style — Whether you are a laid-back parent or a strict disciplinarian, you can’t help what you are. Be honest, and if your parenting style differs from your soon-to-be ex-spouse, be sure to tell that to the GAL without bashing the other parent.
The children’s daily routines — The Guardian Ad Litem will want to know what activities your children are involved in and how their schedule looks. Keep documentation as to what you do daily for your children. (i.e., bedtime routines, doctor/dental appts; school transportation; homework; extracurricular activity support; teacher and school interactions; etc.) Talk about what you and your kids do together. Talk about each of your kids as individuals and describe their uniqueness.
Provide a helpful list of people to interview — Keep your list between three to five people who have seen you interact with your children and can emphasize the strengths of your parenting. It is best to list names of professionals that know your children rather than just friends and family members as the GAL will want unbiased perspectives on your parenting.
Be prepared to address the question “What will the other party say about you?” —This is designed to draw out what you believe to be your strongest and weakest points as a parent. Be sure to have an answer ready, as this shows your ability to recognize that you may not be a perfect parent. However, remain calm and try to not become overly emotional. Finally, remember to reiterate that all you really want is what is best for your kids. Contested litigation inherently breeds self-focus in parents, and a simple statement to a GAL of, “I want what’s best for my children and their emotional stability”, will be remembered. I have had clients put together binders that describe the activities and interests of their children. It takes a bit of work, but it does help illustrate your parenting involvement and desire to have that continue.
Dealing with Guardian Ad Litem bias
If you feel the GAL is showing a bias against you, notify your attorney immediately. You only have a small window to disqualify a GAL, and that may be only before the investigation starts. However, I have seen that the bias most often rears its ugly head after the process is well underway.
Guardian Ad Litems are court-appointed to investigate the case for the child, and, if they are not doing their job, then the court must appoint someone who will. That being said, if the GAL has legitimate issues with one parent, it is natural for that parent to feel a “bias.” Therefore, any motion to the court for a new GAL must generally be supported by some strong evidence of bias, such as a series of emails favoring one parent over the other, a failure to return one parent’s or their attorney’s calls, a history of siding for one sex over the other, or discipline by other courts, etc.
Guardian Ad Litem fees
In many states, the parents are responsible for the GAL fees, even if the court appoints the GAL. Some local courts may also have funds for GALs, but they are typically reserved for low-income families. Realize that the fees can be very expensive — sometimes as much or more than an attorney’s. In some states, the description of what exactly Gal’s role seems to fluctuate all over the board, and they are not always based on clear and defined job descriptions. If you are thinking about requesting a Guardian Ad Litem, do your research into costs and be prepared to pay them, as the court does not have to distribute them between the parents (though it often does, whether equally or in proportion to income). You may pay anywhere from $3,000 to upwards and beyond $30,000. Depending on whether or not your case is a High-Conflict case.
GALs often get referrals based on their business and financial relationships with fellow lawyers and judges. If a GAL is working on a case with a peer from whom they benefit by referrals, (either as a lawyer or GAL) are they truly able to be unbiased and work to achieve “the best interest of the child”? Are there potential business relationships that may be influenced?
Guardian Ad Litem Training
Be aware if there is any history of domestic abuse in your relationship as most GALs have little to no training in this area (approximately 7 hours on domestic violence) but, yet, still proceed to make permanent custody decisions in situations with a history of domestic violence (DV) often with no outside mental health/DV professional consultation. In most states, GALs are not mental health professionals, nor are they trained in child development. They are attorneys. Therefore, GALs (as a whole) do not understand personality disorders and can be swayed by an outspoken or emotional ex-spouse. After all, that is how the brain works. We, as humans, see emotion and our brain starts to mirror that same emotion. Someone with no mental health training may not understand and know how to deal with a truly manipulative personality.
I often wonder how lawyers would respond to a mental health professional trying to decide and influence a clients’ legal divorce proceedings with an average of only 7 hours of legal training under their belts? Lawyers would be incensed and indignant at the thought. GAL training is a total of 40 hours, yet these professionals make decisions that influence children and families forever. Many parents are not told exactly what it means to have a GAL involved in their case. Be careful what you ask for – GALs have a lot of power. Judges often rely on them to help them make decisions in family law cases.
It is undoubtedly uncomfortable to have a stranger evaluate your parenting ability over a relatively short period of time and then make a decision that will carry a lot of weight with the court on the future of your ability to see your child. Even more uncomfortable is when that stranger is a lawyer with monetary benefits that sometimes are derived from a more financially successful parent getting what they want. The best interests of the child are determined by someone with the court’s interests in mind.
Research the role of the GAL in your state’s family court system and consult with your lawyer before asking to have one involved in your case. Schedule a free consultation with us at DivorceMD. Link here: Free 30 Minute Consult. We can help you prepare for your GAL interview and put together your parenting information in a way that will best reflect who you are as a parent.
Colleen Honquest, Certified Divorce Coach and Divorce Mediator
Principal, DivorceMD, LLC