What is a Guardian ad Litem?

Guardian ad litem speaks with a parent in her home.

Parents need to educate themselves on countless things when going through a divorce. Understanding new terms, local laws, and the roles different professionals play makes it easier for co-parents to advocate for their children during divorce proceedings. 

Guardians ad litem (GAL) are one type of professional that parents are unlikely to have encountered before their divorce, and their role may feel confusing at first glance. To help parents understand the responsibilities guardians ad litem have during a divorce, we're going to cover what they are, why they are appointed, and how parents can prepare for their involvement. 

What is a guardian ad litem?

A guardian ad litem is a person appointed by the courts to represent the best interests of someone during a legal matter. For divorce and child custody proceedings, guardians ad litem typically act as factfinders for the court to determine the best interests of the children involved. 

Who is eligible to be a guardian ad litem is determined by local jurisdictions. Different states and counties have varying requirements for eligibility. Some states, such as Minnesota, require pre-service training in order to qualify but do not restrict the role to people of certain professions. Other states may require GALs to be an attorney or licensed mental health professional to work on family law cases. 

Who decides when a guardian ad litem is necessary?

Guardians ad litem are appointed by the court during child custody proceedings. While both parents may be advocating for the best interests of their children during their divorce, they may not always agree on what that looks like down to the last detail.

To help the courts determine the best way forward for a family, they may appoint a guardian ad litem to interview the people involved and review specific information related to the case. As a neutral third-party, the GAL will then report their findings to the judge.

Parents may also consider requesting a GAL be appointed to their case when it involves serious matters such as violence, substance abuse, or other issues that greatly affect one parent's ability to care for the children. 

What is a guardian ad litem looking for? 

The guardian ad litem will look into any issue the court specifies in the order. Orders for guardians ad litem can sometimes be very broad, with GALs being asked to look at the general lifestyle and living arrangements of the children and their relationship with both parents. 

Other times, however, the court will have a specific issue they need the GAL to focus on. In certain jurisdictions, this is called a "limited-purpose appointment" and can focus on issues such as substance abuse or domestic violence. 

If the court appoints a guardian ad litem for your case, you can find out what they have been instructed to focus on in the order.

How can you prepare for the involvement of a guardian ad litem?

Guardians ad litem will gather information about your custody case through interviews, questionnaires, record retrieval, and other methods.

When it comes to your interviews with the GAL, It's important to be prepared. Make a note of all appointments with the GAL in your calendar, and if you must reschedule, inform the GAL as soon as you can. 

During the interview, there are a few general rules of conduct that you should follow: 

  • Do not take the interview as an opportunity to badmouth your co-parent, but do state your concerns
  • Be prepared to answer questions about your role in parenting your children
  • Try to remain calm and respond thoughtfully to the guardian ad litem's questions
  • If the interview will be held at your home, make sure it's clean before their arrival

Apart from the interview, you'll want to collect any relevant documentation that addresses the matter being investigated by the GAL. 

What power does a guardian ad litem have during custody proceedings? 

Guardians ad litem make recommendations to the court based on the best interests of the children. GALs will make recommendations concerning:

  • With whom the child lives
  • How much time the child spends with each parent
  • Whether or not supervised visitation should be considered
  • Whether the judge should require either parent to take additional steps (such as completing a substance abuse treatment program) in order to spend more time with the children

Courts take the recommendations of a GAL seriously, and parents should prepare for their involvement accordingly. If you have any questions about the involvement of a Guardian ad Litem in your case, consult a family law professional in your area for assistance.