The Role of Guardians Ad Litem in Family Law Cases
Family law matters that address child-related issues, which can range from divorce to child custody, are some of the more tension-filled lawsuits a person will likely ever experience. When it comes to children and interacting with a former spouse, some parents can become entrenched in maintaining a certain position and be unwilling to consider an outcome that does not fully align with their vision. This approach unavoidably creates a lot of conflict, and if that conflict reaches a high level or allegations of abuse or neglect emerge, a guardian ad litem (GAL) may be appointed by the court to protect the child’s interests. Children rarely have a voice in legal proceedings, or a neutral representative evaluating what is best for them. Judges need to understand the child’s situation in order to ascertain what his/her best interests are, and parents who are focused on one another may not provide an adequate picture. GALs appointed in divorce or family law cases tend to be attorneys that are paid by the parties to serve as the child’s voice, which differs from GALs in dependency (abuse) cases that are normally trained volunteers, though volunteers are used in both forums. The outcome of the child-related issues is often driven by the findings of the GAL, so the role this individual plays should be not overlooked or ignored. A discussion of the process to appoint a GAL, the scope of the GAL’s participation, and how courts use the information provided by a GAL when rendering a decision will follow below.
When/How a GAL Is Appointed
GALs are somewhat commonly involved in divorce and family law cases, and as noted above, typically enter the picture when the child’s interests are not being adequately represented, or when the child has relevant information, such as witnessing abuse, and the court and/or parents want to avoid having the child testify. GALs are normally appointed by the court to act as a friend of the child, but they may not serve as a legal advocate. Parents may also request the appointment of a GAL, but do not exercise control over who is chosen or his/her participation in the case. A court may appoint an attorney in addition to a GAL, but it cannot be the same person. Thus, GALs are independent evaluators that look out for the child’s interests, even if they conflict with the child’s wishes.
The GAL’s primary function is to gather facts and provide an analysis of the child’s best interests. This is accomplished through interviewing the child, parents, siblings, important adult relatives, teachers, etc. to ascertain the child’s living situation, level of adjustment, functioning at school, and overall wellbeing with the current arrangement. In addition, using an attorney, a GAL can subpoena documents and testimony of individuals and entities with information that is relevant to the child’s welfare, as well as require the child, parents, or other household members to undergo medical examinations and/or mental health evaluations.
Influence on the Court
The reports and oral testimony provided by GALs to the court normally carry a lot of influence with the judge, and are weighed heavily as the court decides the appropriate outcome. However, note that a court cannot delegate the final decision to the GAL, and must make its own determination about parenting time or decision-making authority, the terms now used to encompass child custody. Given the favorable view courts have of GALs, parents are best served to cooperate with these court-appointed neutral evaluators, and work with an experienced family law attorney to achieve their goals.
Contact an Orlando Family Lawyer
Safeguarding your rights as a parent and protecting the needs of your child quickly becomes complicated when these factors must be balanced against your spouse’s rights and wishes. The experienced Orlando family law attorneys at the Donna Hung Group understand the challenges you are facing, and can help you obtain the best possible outcome. Contact us at (407) 999-0099 for consultation.