What is Guardian ad Litem?

There is no doubt that complications can arise in child custody cases in California. While some parents can agree on a custody arrangement that works for everyone involved, others have contentious custody battles that involve complex issues and possible allegations of abuse and other conduct of one or both parents. In these situations, the matter might need to go to trial in family court to be resolved.

When a child is in the middle of a custody battle, the court – or the parents – might decide the child needs someone to protect their interests. The judge might appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) to be an advocate for your child throughout the proceedings.

Who is the Guardian ad Litem?

GALs are individuals appointed by the family court who have the responsibility of advocating for the child’s interests. In non-family law matters, a parent or close relative might serve as a child’s GAL. However, in family cases involving the parents, the court will usually appoint a neutral party.

Guardian ad litems might be attorneys, but they do not have to be. Some non-attorney adults decide to undergo GAL training to help children. Even if the GAL is a licensed lawyer, they will not serve the same role as a lawyer for your child. Instead, they might be called as witnesses and engage in other parts of the case that a lawyer would generally not do.

GALS are intended to be your child’s voice in family court. While parents might be arguing about what they want, the guardian ad litem can speak up about what your child might want and what arrangements would be best for their needs. Parents can get caught up in their own agendas, and the GAL is not interested in their agendas. They are interested in ensuring the child’s needs and interests are properly considered.

What to Expect from a GAL in Your Custody Case

In order to properly advocate for your child’s interests in a custody case, a guardian ad litem will need to become familiar with the unique situation of your family. Understanding the dynamics between parents and child helps them identify what to advocate for.

GALs might schedule:

  • Interviews with your child without parents present
  • Interviews with each parent
  • Interviews with other family members, family friends, or others with close relationships to the child
  • Meetings with teachers, school counselors, therapists, social workers, or others who have worked with the child

GALs might also request to review a child’s school records, physical and mental health records, and other information that gives them insight into the child’s interests and needs.

In order to best represent your child in court, the guardian ad litem needs to have a clear picture of the family dynamic and the life the child was used to. This includes the good and the bad. Often, the GAL is evaluating similar factors the court will use in custody determinations, which focus on the best interests of the child. Some things a guardian ad litem might examine include:

  • Each parent’s ability and willingness to properly care for the child
  • The child’s well-being when under the care of each parent
  • Any risk factors involved with a parent
  • The child’s relationship with household members of each parent, including siblings and extended family
  • The child’s community and school connections and how custody might impact those
  • The special needs of the child and each parent’s ability to provide for them
  • The stability of each parent’s home
  • Whether there was a history of domestic violence or substance abuse by a parent
  • The child’s preference for custody and reasons for this preference

Once a GAL believes they have a clear picture of what the child might want and what is in the child’s best interests (which may or may not be the same thing), they can present their report to the family judge. The GAL can then testify if needed about their report and their discussions with the child, which can prevent the need for the child to take the stand in their parents’ custody case, which can be traumatizing.

When Will the Court Appoint a GAL for Your Child?

There is not a specific rule regarding when it is time for a guardian ad litem to become involved in a custody case. Often, a judge will see that a case involves neglect, abuse, or other serious and complex issues and will want to ensure that the child’s needs are properly represented in court. A GAL can also help serve as the child’s voice when it might be inappropriate for the child to speak to the judge or testify in court on their own.

Parents can also request that the court appoint a GAL for their child, though there is no guarantee this will result in an appointment. Some parents might think they can manipulate the GAL into pushing their agenda, and the court might not involve a GAL if the judge suspects this might be the case.

Generally speaking, when the court believes they need more insight into the child’s situation in a contested custody case, they are likely to appoint a guardian ad litem. This is also the case if the judge believes that the child’s well-being might not be supported by a joint custody determination.

Once appointed, the guardian ad litem’s level of involvement in the case will depend on the circumstances. Some GALs do not have to spend too much time researching the family and child’s interests, and they can make a recommendation to the court fairly quickly, and then their involvement is over.

On the other hand, in cases involving deep-seated issues in the family that impact the child’s well-being, getting to the bottom of the matter can be more challenging and time-consuming. The GAL might be involved in the case until the final resolution is reached.

In either situation, parents are generally responsible for the fees of a GAL unless they can prove financial hardship to the court. This can add to the costs of a custody and divorce case, but a GAL can help protect your child.