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Guardian Ad Litems: Who is Representing Your Children in a Divorce?

Updated on November 5, 2012

Family Division

Children need their parents to work together
Children need their parents to work together | Source

Frustrated Children

Children get caught in between their parents
Children get caught in between their parents | Source

Divorce and Children

Divorce is a very stressful time for families, especially for the children. Often times, children are pushed and pulled in different directions, not knowing where they stand and what is going to happen to them. They are suddenly having to divide their time between two parents who may or may not be able to communicate effectively with each other. Making decisions that are best for the children during a divorce is often an enormous challenge that cannot be done without some assistance from an outside source. For this reason, a judge may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) to help make objective recommendations about what is best for the children. What is a Guardian Ad Litem and what should you expect if one is appointed to your case? These are the questions that will be answered, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of having a GAL appointed to your case?

A GAL Visit

GAL's will visit the children in their natural home environment
GAL's will visit the children in their natural home environment | Source

What is a GAL

A Guardian ad litem (GAL) is a person who is appointed by a judge to make recommendations regarding children in a complex situation. This could be due to divorce, child abuse or neglect, special needs, or any other situation in which a judge feels it is necessary to have an objective person recommend what is best for the child(ren). A GAL is often someone who has an attorney background, but not always. There are GAL certification classes that a person can complete to become a GAL. Do not be confused about a GAL's role in cases involving children. They are NOT representing your children as a lawyer would. They are there to make recommendations only about what they feel would benefit the child. The judge can follow these recommendations, but he is not obligated to do so. The judge will look at all of the information he has received during the case to make a final decision, but a GAL's report weighs heavily in his decision.

Keeping Good Records

A GAL will keep notes regarding your case.
A GAL will keep notes regarding your case. | Source

A GAL Investigation: What to Expect

You now have a GAL appointed to your divorce. What happens next? It is the GAL's job to gather as much information about the parents and the children as they can to get a strong understanding of the issues. This will be done in several ways. First, he will set up a time to visit with each parent individually while he or she has the children with them (if both parents have visitation rights). The GAL will watch the interaction between the parent and child(ren), ask the children questions, and ask the parent about any concerns they may have. Next, the GAL will interview any person that he feels will bring better light to the children's situation. This could be family members, friends, medical professionals, or others who know the children well and may give the GAL a better perspective of the case. The GAL may review medical reports, school reports, police reports, and any other documentation that may be available. A professional GAL will ensure that they have as much information as possible before making an unbiased, objective written recommendation to the judge.

GAL Costs

A Gal cost will vary in each case.
A Gal cost will vary in each case. | Source

The Cost of a GAL

Having a GAL appointed to your case is not free. The cost varies from state to state, depending on the guidelines set forth. Most of the time, each parent is required to pay a sum of money before the GAL begins, and then the parents are informed when that amount has been used and more payment is necessary. For many parents, this is an added expense that can place a financial burden on one or both of them during a time when the finances are already being stretched. The courts do have a fund available for those parents who qualify to assist with the cost of the GAL. There is a form available at the court that the parent completes to see if they can receive this assistance. The amount it costs for a GAL is largely dependant on the complexity of the issues regarding the children.

Ineffective Communication

Children are affected by how parents communicate with each other.
Children are affected by how parents communicate with each other. | Source

Benefits of a GAL

Children are a huge focal point in a divorce. In most cases, both parents love their children and want to be a part of their lives after the divorce. In cases where parents can sit and work out the issues regarding the children together, a GAL will most likely be unnecessary. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. When parents cannot agree on what is best for the children, a GAL can be a valuable asset. They are an objective party who can try to understand the dynamics of the family and ensure that the children's needs (and desires when appropriate) are properly investigated and presented to the judge in the form of a written report. The GAL helps to alleviate the stress for parents who have been unable to communicate effectively regarding the children. He also addresses any concerns that parents may have regarding safety, medical, physical, and emotional needs, addiction issues, etc. Every situation is different; therefore, each case must be reviewed according to its own circumstances.

When Children are Torn

Children get torn between their parents
Children get torn between their parents | Source

Disadvantages of a GAL

Like most things in life, there are disadvantages to having a GAL appointed in your divorce. One disadvantage is that it leaves your children's well-being in the hands of someone who will only get to know your children on the surface. In a bitter divorce, the parents are not always honest about their interactions with their children during the marriage because they want to leave a good impression on the GAL. That can give the GAL a false representation of what is best for the children without having first hand knowledge of the actual circumstances. Another disadvantage is that there are some GAL's who do not investigate their cases thoroughly or in an unbiased, objective manner. Because of this, the judge may receive a report that does not represent the children's best interests. Because GAL's are human, they can easily insert their own past experiences into a case if they are not able to keep the two separate and remain professional. Therefore, a GAL is not always a foolproof method of ensuring that the recommendations the judge receives are in the best interest of the children.

Facing the Judge

The judge makes the final decision in divorce cases
The judge makes the final decision in divorce cases | Source

Satisfaction Survey

If you have or have had a Guardian ad litem appointed in your divorce, were you satisfied with their investigation and recommendations?

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Dismissing a GAL

If you are one of the unlucky families to be assigned an unprofessional GAL, it can make divorce proceedings even more stressful. Once a GAL has been appointed to a case, it is often difficult to get him removed because of the time that has already been invested into the case. It does not mean that you have no options if you feel the GAL is not doing his job. Most states have GAL boards where complaints can be sent to try to resolve some of these issues. Unfortunately, it may not happen in a time frame that will directly benefit you or your children. You also have a right to file a motion with the judge requesting a new GAL be appointed. If you choose to go this route, be prepared to present solid information that proves the GAL has not handled your case in an unbiased, professional manner. Judges are hesitant to make these changes as it always causes delays in a divorce, as well as costs the parents more money to start the process over again. If you have valid reasons, though, and you can prove it to the judge, then it is worth the delay and cost to ensure that your children's needs are being represented in a fair manner.

What Do You Think?

Would you ask for a Guardian ad litem to make recommendations for your children in a divorce?

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Is a GAL Right for You

Divorce affects the lives of children in a very profound and lasting way. The manner in which their parents handle these proceedings can affect them for many years to come. Although parents may find themselves in their own personal turmoil, they must put their children's needs first. Having the ability to work together to make the best decisions for the children is always the best possible outcome in a divorce. It also helps lay the groundwork for future communication regarding the children after the divorce. Not all divorce cases will be handled this way, though, so there has to be another option. If the children become an issue that just cannot be resolved in a civil, compromising manner by the parents, then having a GAL appointed may be the only option. Understanding what this will mean for you and your children may influence your decision of which avenue is best. An informed decision is always the better choice.


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