When you are facing a child custody case, it is critical that you seek legal representation from a custody lawyer who can protect your parental rights under California law. It is likely that the other parent will also have their own attorney.
What about your child? Does your child need their own legal counsel when they are the subject of a custody matter? How does this process work?
There are some cases in which the family court will appoint an attorney to specifically represent your child’s interests. This might happen in different situations:
- The judge decides it is appropriate
- A parent requests a court-appointed attorney
- The custody case involves allegations of abuse or neglect or the child
Should You Request an Appointed Attorney?
When two parents are cooperating and agree on how they should resolve visitation and custody matters, it is likely unnecessary for your child to have a lawyer of their own. However, they might benefit from representation if:
- You are battling over custody with the other parent, and the matter will go to trial
- You have concerns that the other parent having custody rights will put your child’s safety or well-being in jeopardy due to child abuse, substance abuse, or similar issues
- Paternity is a question in the case
If you are wondering whether this is the right option in your case, you should always discuss the matter with your custody attorney. If the court denies your request for an appointed lawyer, your own lawyer can help you decide where to go from there and what resources are available.
Courts Can Choose to Appoint Attorneys
A family judge can determine that appointing an attorney for your child is in their best interests, even if neither parent requests it – or wants it. Even if you do not believe that your child should have a court-appointed lawyer, you must cooperate if the judge chooses to appoint one. You must make your child available to meet with the attorney when requested. You also might have to sign forms to release information to the attorney, including school or medical records, so the attorney has all the information they need to properly represent the needs and interests of your child.
What Will a Lawyer for my Child Do?
Attorneys appointed to represent children usually have specific training in representing the interests of minors in complicated custody matters and other types of family or juvenile cases. The attorney will owe your child the same duty of confidentiality, loyalty, and competency as they would an adult client.
Even if you are the one who requested the attorney for your child, the attorney is not there to promote your wishes for custody. Instead, the lawyer is a neutral party who is representing the interests of your child – not either parent. It is important to remember that since this is not your lawyer, what you say to them might not be private or confidential.
An attorney will investigate the circumstances of the custody case and help to determine what your child wants for an outcome and what type of outcome might be in your child’s best interests. Note that these are not always the same thing. The lawyer can then present this information to the court, so the judge can consider these arguments when making the final custody determination.
Lawyer vs. Guardian ad Litem
Some family courts appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) to help a child in a custody matter. GALs are often attorneys, but they do not have to be. These individuals play similar roles when representing your child, including investigating the circumstances to decide what outcome would be best for the child.
One major difference is the GAL can be called as a witness to testify to their findings on behalf of your child’s case. An appointed lawyer will not be a witness, but will instead advocate for your child’s rights along with the lawyer for the parents.
How do Attorneys Determine What is Best for a Child?
Lawyers who are trained to represent children in family court know the process of evaluating the situation of the child and the parents. Some investigative tactics they might use include:
- Holding meetings with your child to have a conversation. These might be at your home, the law office, a school counselor’s office, or anywhere else the child will feel comfortable opening up. The lawyer can ask questions about your child’s feelings and wishes when it comes to spending time with each parent.
- Holding meetings with each parent to discuss why they are fighting for a particular custody arrangement.
- Speaking with doctors, teachers, social workers, or other professionals who work with your child to get their perspective on your child and the situation.
- Reviewing medical reports and records related to the custody case, including those regarding any special needs of the child or possible abuse. They also might request a professional medical evaluation of your child’s physical and mental health.
- Representing your child’s interests at all court hearings and answering questions from the judge. They can present witnesses as part of their case if needed.
- Providing support for your child throughout the case.
It is important to reiterate that the attorney appointed for your child is there to promote your child’s interests, not yours. Even if you are the one who requested the appointment, do not expect the lawyer to push your custody agenda, unless they find this is the right move for the child.
Who Covers the Attorney’s Costs?
The parents involved in the custody matter will be responsible for paying the attorney’s fees if you are able to do so. Custody cases can be costly, and this will add to the cost, though it can be important to have an attorney for your child in hotly contested or complex cases. If it is possible for you and the other parent to cooperate and resolve custody out of court, you can prevent the need for a child’s attorney and these added expenses. However, that is often not possible in cases involving abuse or other concerns.