Adults have certain rights in a divorce or custody case, but the legal system recognizes that kids have rights, too. Children are often awarded their own attorneys in custody cases, because the proceedings have a direct and lasting impact on their lives.
That attorney is called a guardian ad litem (GAL), or law guardian. The GAL is an attorney appointed by the court to represent the rights of the minors (or incompetent individuals) involved in a divorce or custody case. They directly represent the children and their interests and are either paid by the state or by the parents. (GALs also represent minors in other types of cases, like inheritance lawsuits.)
What does a GAL do?
The goal of the GAL is to help the court find out what is in “the best interest of the children”—the standard by which custody is decided. GALs typically meet with the children, visit both parents’ homes, and interview both parents. They may also decide to do their own investigation by talking to teachers, therapists, doctors, neighbors, and anyone else who knows the family, to try and get a clear picture of the children’s needs and what the adults are like as parents.
The role the GAL plays in the case varies by state. Typically, a GAL prepares for a potential trial by interviewing parents and children, reviewing records, and finding witnesses. In some states, the GAL makes opening and closing statements and asks the court for a specific outcome in the case.
In other states, their role is to submit a written report to the court, which includes information from the investigation and a custody recommendation for the judge. If the case settles before trial (as many do), the GAL is often instrumental in creating the settlement and helping the parties find common ground.
In some cases a GAL acts as the spokesperson for the child. This comes into play when the case involves preteens or teens who have a strong opinion about the case. The GAL can decide (and is sometimes required) to take whatever position the children ask for in the case. For example, if the children want to live with their mother, that’s what the GAL will ask for—whether or not the GAL believes it’s in the children’s best interest. In other cases, the GAL might alone decide what is best for the children and take that position before the court.
How to work with a GAL
If you are in a custody battle with an ex, your kids may end up represented by a GAL. It might feel weird to you that your kids have their own lawyer, and you may even feel resentful that a stranger is going to make a recommendation that will affect your family for years.
But, for the sake of your family, try to keep friendly and open with the GAL. If you appear secretive or act in a hostile manner it might seem like you have something to hide. Instead, welcome the GAL into your home and answer all of his or her questions. Tell your side of the story, truthfully and thoroughly, but try to keep your emotions in check. You don’t want to seem vindictive towards the other parent or other family members. Make it clear that you will actively support and encourage the other parent’s relationship with the child if you get custody.
Don’t try to manipulate the outcome
The biggest mistake you can make is to try to control what your child says to the GAL. If your child is old enough, the GAL will likely talk to him or her alone to understand what he or she really wants. Bribing your child, rehearsing what he or she should say, or otherwise trying to control the outcome of this conversation is a bad idea. More often than not, this kind of manipulation is eventually exposed—and will count as a strike against you.
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