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Custody Disputes and the Guardian ad Litem

When the custody of your child is in dispute to the point where the courts have become involved, you have, in a sense, relinquished certain decisions about your child’s future to the judge. It’s your job to convince the judge that your opinion is the correct one and is in your child’s best interests. If you have an attorney (and you should!), he or she will advocate for you and present your case – your arguments – to the judge. But the other parent of your child believes his or her opinion is the correct one, too, and that it is in your child’s best interests. And there’s most likely another attorney on that side presenting that case – and those arguments – to the judge.

It’s likely that the judge has never met your child – and probably won’t. She only knows what the parents and their respective attorneys are telling her. Unfortunately, a bit of mud-slinging and a whole lot of he said/she said is probably involved. What’s a judge to do? How is she supposed to make decisions and hand down rulings that will affect the rest of the child’s life, based on nothing but the yelling match that’s taking place in front of her bench?

Thankfully, the judge doesn’t have to make these decisions blindly. She can appoint a Guardian ad Litem. Commonly referred to as the GAL, this person is most often another attorney who practices family law. The GAL does not represent either parent, and really doesn’t represent the child, either. He or she will represent the child’s best interests. They are often attributed with giving the children a voice. It’s the GAL’s job to investigate all aspects of the custody dispute and to file a report and recommendation with the court.

The court can choose a GAL from a list of attorneys who are trained and willing to serve in this capacity. The parties can also agree on who will serve as the GAL. Once the court appoints a GAL, the parties each then contact him or her to set up initial appointments. They typically split the GAL’s fees. The GAL is empowered to investigate everything: meet with and interview the children, school teachers and staff; review school records; talk to doctors and therapists and review their records; talk to other family members or friends who play an important role in the child’s life; and do home visits. If the police or child protective services have been involved, those reports can and should be reviewed as well.

A good GAL will consider all the evidence and results from his investigation, and compile a detailed report for the court, complete with explicit recommendations as to custody and parenting time. The court is not required to follow the GAL’s recommendations, but usually does, as that’s the whole point of appointing a GAL. The judge simply cannot know every aspect of the case. GALs become very skilled at sifting through the statements made by either parent that may be less than truthful.

Before you and your attorney decide that an all-out war waged in the courtroom is the only way to “win,” consider the child’s best interests and the appointment of a GAL. Church, Langdon, Lopp, Banet Law’s family law attorney, Dana Eberle-Peay, is well-versed in the use of GALs in her cases and is also trained to serve as a GAL.

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While divorce is difficult and often incredibly emotional, its effects go far beyond the separation of two adults who no longer wish to be married. When minor children are involved, decisions about custody must be made. Decisions are made based on the best interests of the child. And unless a parent has serious problems that could endanger the child, the courts typically favor the involvement o[...]