The Judge Appointed a Guardian ad Litem in my Divorce: What Does That Mean?
A Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”) is an attorney with special training who is appointed by the Judge to represent “the best interests of the child.” Because that description is so odd, it is often said that the GAL represents for the child or children involved. This does not mean that the court is assigning a permanent new guardian, or even that the parents are unfit. “Ad litem” means “for the suit,” indicating that a GAL’s work ends when the legal action ends. The GAL is a neutral third party who investigates the child’s situation during the proceeding and makes a recommendation about what arrangement would be in the best interests of the child.
In Missouri, the court is required to appoint a GAL for a child in any case where abuse or neglect has been claimed (just claimed, not proven). The GAL acts as the child’s voice and seeks to protect and promote the child’s best interests during the divorce case.
The GAL’s duties end when the parties sign an agreement resolving the issues, or when there is a trial and the judge decides the case. The GAL remains, however, if there is an appeal.
The fees for the GAL are paid by the parents as the Judge directs.
What does a GAL do?
A GAL represents the child’s best interests. He or she talks with the child as well as to the parents. The GAL also meets with others and reviews records deemed relevant to the determination of what custody and visitation arrangements are in the best interests of the child. The GAL may visit the parent’s homes. The GAL participates in the legal proceedings to the extent that he or she deems necessary. He may consult with outside experts, such as a psychologist or social worker.
At some point in the proceedings, the GAL will make a recommendation to the Judge as to what is in the best interests of the child. The GAL’s recommendation does not have to be what the child says he or she wants.
How should I interact with the GAL?
Of course, you should speak with your divorce attorney about the particular GAL appointed in your case.
Here are three things that we tell our clients before they meet with a GAL.
First, if you want your attorney to be with you, just ask. The attorney’s role is not to run the meeting or tell you what to say or to run the meeting, but to make you more comfortable.
In almost 25 years of practicing family law, I have always learned something significant when I attend a meeting with a client and the GAL.
Second, be honest. Be ready to admit how you could improve as a parent and at least one good parenting quality of the other parent. It is a good thing that you have thought about how you can be a better parent and that you will respect and appreciate the other parent.
Finally, remember that the GAL is not your attorney and not your friend. Snide comments about the other parent or the other attorney will not reflect well on you. Always remember, there are no secrets between you and the GAL.