Child Custody Disputes: The Role of a Guardian Ad Litem
When the allocation of parental responsibilities is in dispute, the Court has the authority to appoint an attorney to investigate the best interests of the child and make recommendations to the Court. That attorney performs the role of a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). Either party may request the appointment of a GAL, or the Court may appoint one on its own motion.
The GAL, in addition to being a licensed attorney, is required to have completed supplemental professional education, often covering topics such as developmental considerations of children, family dynamics, interviewing and assessment techniques, mental health and substance abuse issues, ethical considerations, and others. He/She makes inquiries of each party, the child/children which are the subject of the dispute, and often, third parties with information relevant to the matters in dispute such as counselors, teachers, and extended family members.
The GAL is a neutral agent of the Court, can be cross-examined by either party, has broad authority, and communications with GALs are not subject to privilege. GALs, as licensed legal professionals, are entitled to receive a retainer for their services, separate and apart from legal fees which may be paid by either party to his/her own counsel. The GAL retainer is often allocated in percentages to each party based on their respective financial circumstances. While the recommendations of a GAL are not binding on the Court’s determinations, such recommendations are often given considerable weight in judicial decisions.