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What is a guardian ad litem in custody cases?

On Behalf of | Mar 6, 2024 | Child Custody |

Any time that there’s a conflict over child custody, the emotional stakes can be pretty high – and the legal terrain can be complex. 

In many instances, it is wise (or outright necessary) to involve a guardian ad litem (GAL) in a custody case.  A guardian ad litem is a court-appointed representative who advocates for the best interests of a child or children – and only the child or children – during legal proceedings, particularly in custody disputes. 

The primary goal of a GAL is to provide the court with an independent and unbiased assessment of what would be in the child’s best interests regarding custody, visitation and any parenting plans. Since a guardian ad litem can be a powerful voice in any family legal matter involving children, it’s important to understand as much as you can about when they are used and what effect they can have.

When is a guardian ad litem necessary?

The appointment of a guardian ad litem can be requested by either party involved in a custody dispute. Even if neither side requests one, the court may decide to appoint a GAL. This is particularly likely to happen when the parties have been unable to reach any sort of compromise regarding the children despite ongoing efforts. 

A guardian ad litem may also be imposed by the court when:

  • There are allegations of abuse or neglect:  When one or both parents claim that the other is abusive or neglectful, the court may appoint a GAL to dig deeper and investigate the claims to see if they can determine if the accusations are credible.
  • The situation is clearly a high-conflict case: Some custody cases are marked from the start as “difficult,” either because there is a deep-seated conflict between the parents or some conflict between the child and one or both parents. In high-conflict situations, a GAL can serve as a neutral third party to assess the situation objectively and recommend a custody arrangement that prioritizes the child’s needs.
  • There are other reasons that custody is complicated: When a child has unique medical concerns or special needs, or there is anything unusual about the situation, the GAL can provide valuable insights into the child’s unique requirements and advocate for a suitable arrangement.

Once a GAL is involved, they will meet with all the parties to the custody issue and interview them, and they will speak to the child or children alone. They will also likely visit each parent’s home to see for themselves if the parents are both able to provide the child or children with safe living spaces. They also have the authority to subpoena witnesses, if necessary, and they may want to speak to a child’s teachers, doctors and other relatives to get more information about a situation. After an exhaustive investigation, they may either provide the court with their recommendation in writing or through direct testimony.

Should you request a guardian ad litem?

If you are prioritizing the best interests of your child or children and are committed to meeting their needs, a GAL can be helpful – but it is always good to remember that the GAL’s recommendations are not binding upon the court.  The judge still has the final say. When a custody dispute begins to escalate, legal guidance can help you better understand what to expect at each step.