What is a Guardian Ad Litem?
A guardian ad litem is appointed by a court in order to represent the best interests of the child in family law proceedings. Guardians ad litem can include attorney guardians and volunteer guardian advocates who work on cases involving allegations of child abuse and neglect, custody disputes, and other family court matters.
Either parent can request that a guardian ad litem be appointed for their child, or the judge can order the appointment. If you have questions about having an advocate for your children in a court case, contact your family law attorney.
Some states require that a guardian ad litem be an attorney. Other states may appoint non-attorneys who have specialized training. Some states also use a team-based approach, with a combination of attorneys and community volunteers to work together in representing children in court.
GAL attorneys have formal legal training, are licensed by the state, and have experience in family court. The requirements to be a non-attorney guardian ad litem can vary by state. For example, in North Carolina, a GAL advocate is a trained community volunteer who works with a GAL attorney advocate. The application process for GAL advocates includes a screening interview, criminal record checks, and a 30-hour training program.
In family court, a guardian ad litem’s role is to investigate and recommend child custody and visitation arrangements that are in the best interest of the child. The duties and responsibilities of a guardian ad litem may include:
- Investigate and report information about the child’s case
- Monitor parent and family compliance with court orders
- Update the court on any changes in circumstance or reported problems
- Conduct visitations and site investigations
- Make recommendations to the court
- Review medical records and daycare records
The independent investigations performed by a guardian ad litem may not be as extensive as a custody evaluator’s but may involve interviews with the parents, children, legal guardian, family members, caregivers, or teachers who have frequent contact with the child.
A guardian ad litem can also investigate parents’ criminal records and look into any complaints that the parents have about one another. For example, if the mother is complaining that the father should not visit with the children overnight because he is using drugs, the guardian ad litem can recommend that the court order drug testing for one or both parents.
Contact between a child and a guardian ad litem often depends on the child’s age. A guardian ad litem may simply observe children with each of their parents without much interaction with the child. Older children may have the opportunity to speak with a guardian ad litem about their concerns, wants, and needs. While a guardian ad litem advocates for the child’s best interest, they do not necessarily advocate for what the child wants, which can be an important difference.
As a child advocate, guardians ad litem also have the power to submit written information to the court, make home visits, and subpoena and question witnesses during court hearings. A guardian can also be appointed for an incapacitated person. The guardian may represent children in a number of legal cases, including:
- Divorce or legal separation
- Creating or modifying parenting plans and visitation arrangements
- Paternity disputes
- Child neglect and abuse
- Foster care
- Parental rights disputes
- Third-party custody disputes
In any child custody or visitation hearing, the guardian ad litem can be an important witness, and they will typically submit a written recommendation to the court prior to the hearing for review. While the court is not required to follow their recommendation, it can carry a lot of weight with the judge.
Although a guardian ad litem is often from a volunteer program, there may still be costs associated with running the ad litem program, including paying a program administrator, program staff, and supplies for the program office. The court may order one or both parents to contribute to the cost of the program services, which may be several hundred dollars. Generally, the fees are split but may be allocated based on financial need.
A guardian may also be appointed for a child in a personal injury case if the parents are not able to represent the minor child. In a personal injury claim where the child suffered an injury, the child’s representative may act in the interests of the child to make sure a settlement offer is acceptable or whether it is in the best interests of the child to accept an award.
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