what does a GAL do?

Guardian Ad Litem: What You Need To Know

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As you already know, divorce is a tricky business. Emotions run high, tempers can flare, and the situation is further heightened when minor children are thrown into the mix. In custody cases, whether the parents are married or not, and where both sides have, perhaps, lost sight of the well-being of the kids caught in the middle, a guardian ad litem can be employed to protect the best interests of the child or children. That in itself is a whole other proposition, and here are a few things you should know before moving forward.

What Is A Guardian Ad Litem?

As stated, the primary duty and function of a guardian ad litem is to represent the best interests of the child in question in court, not to serve as an actual guardian or caregiver. In addition to divorce and custody cases, courts often appoint GALs in domestic dispute suits that involve adoption, child support, visitation rights, and even emancipation or the termination of parental rights. They perform an investigation, present a report and recommendations, and advocate for the children concerned.

A guardian ad litem may be:

  • an attorney,
  • a mental health professional,
  • social workers,
  • or other trained qualified individuals, 

that are appointed by the court to take an impartial position to best determine an optimal outcome for the child’s well-being after the divorce has been finalized.

The GAL will interview all the parties, including the parents, children, and others who can provide insight into the case at hand, like neighbors, teachers, family members, or anyone else able to help illuminate the situation.

Appointed as they are, GALs are tasked with doing what is best for his or her respective wards, not necessarily honoring the direct wishes of the child.

Acting as officers of the court, they are also charged with maintaining an objective independence, a fairness to all parties and attorneys involved, and to avoid conflicts of interest, impropriety, or even the appearance of such in the execution of their duties.

When And Why A Guardian Ad Litem May Be Appointed

There are a number of circumstances when a guardian ad litem may be assigned to a specific case, and these vary area to area, judge to judge. That said, in situations when there are allegations of neglect or abuse, a GAL is almost always appointed to perform an inquiry.

If parents have failed to follow previous court orders, or have been otherwise unable to prove themselves fit, safe guardians, one may also be called upon.

In cases involving younger children, the services of a GAL are more likely to be retained. In Washington, though minors do not directly get to determine the outcome of a case, if a child is older, for instance a teenager, and able to express their feelings and comprehend the gravity and seriousness of divorce, the GAL may take their input into account.

This is, however, more of a courtesy, and if it is determined that the child’s best interest runs counter to their desires, that will be the GAL’s recommendation.

Either party can also ask to have a GAL assigned to their case. In these instances, it is up to the discretion of the individual judge whether or not to grant this request. If there is a disagreement between both parents regarding what is best for the child, employing the services of a GAL can be valuable and advance the proceedings if each side agrees to abide by their findings and recommendations.

What A Guardian Ad Litem Means For Your Case

While every guardian ad litem will have a different method and approach to their respective investigations, you will at the very least want to prepare yourself to be interviewed about your relationship with your future-ex and your children.

Typical Questions /Information Requested:

  • He or she will likely want a brief overview of your history with your soon-to-be former spouse,
  • what brought you to the point of divorce or separation,
  • and possibly even what you think your ex will say about you.
  • You will certainly also be asked about your connection with your children,
  • their daily routines,
  • how you approach parenting,
  • your strengths and weaknesses,
  • and other similar topics.

Depending on the style of the GAL appointed to your case, you may provide a list of additional people for them to interview. This will be folks who watch you interact with your children on a regular basis and can speak to your merits.

It can be difficult and uncomfortable to have an outsider dig into your life and judge your parenting, and these will not always be easy questions to answer. But the best approach is to be honest.

The guardian ad litem is not your enemy; they’re not out to attack you or your ability as a parent; they legitimately have the best interest of your children in mind and are searching for any information that will shed light on how to best serve the welfare and security of your kids.

Guardian Ad Litem Costs

A guardian ad litem can be compensated or a volunteer. Many counties in Washington State recruit, train, vet, and maintain a registry of volunteer guardians ad litem (VGALs) to serve as advocates for children in superior court cases.

That said, a GAL can be quite pricey. In Washington there is an initial retainer north of $1000, and fees can go up from there depending on the length and depth of the investigation. The court may order all parties involved to share the costs, or one may be required to shoulder the full burden, depending on their ability to pay. If the financial state of both sides dictates, the county may eat the costs of the GAL.

Related Reading: What Are The Different Kinds of Protections Orders?

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