All about Guardian Ad Litem
Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) comes from Latin and, is defined by the online Legal Dictionary as “a unique type of guardian in a relationship that has been created by court order only for the duration of legal action. Courts appoint these special representatives for infants, minors, and mentally incompetent persons, all of whom generally need help protecting their rights in court.” Each state has its own guidelines for using GAL. This blog will use Florida as its example and will focus on the Family Law court’s use of GAL for issues such as parental timesharing, developing parenting plans, child support, and post-divorce modification of these issues, all of which involve minor children and/or children with special needs.
For a number of years, Florida Family Courts have used the motto “in the best interest of the child”. Essentially this means that in cases involving minor children, particularly with the separation or divorce of their parents, plans made for minor children’s care and nurturing must take into account both parents equally and what is truly best for the child, even if this is an inconvenience for a parent. Each couple must execute (usually with the help of their attorney) a parenting plan which will include guidelines for parental timesharing, and other concerns such as co-pays, who cares for a child if a parent cannot, how will parent to parent and child to parent communication take place, and enforcing the fact that all major decisions regarding a child’s education, religious, discipline, and medical needs will be handled by both parents discussing and agreeing together.
As can be imagined, in many cases parents are at complete odds with each other as to what is best for their minor children. Florida Statutes 61:13 (can be found online) gives 20 guidelines for a judge to consider while he or she is making final decisions for the minor children when parents cannot agree on a suitable plan. As children cannot speak for themselves and parents are often so antagonistic toward each other a judge cannot get a true picture of the family situation and what is best for a child a guardian ad litem can be appointed by the court. The GAL will interview all parties concerned as well any person such as a grandparent or child care personnel who regularly interact with the child. A GAL will then provide recommendations to the court, verbal and written, as to what is in the best interest of the child. A report will also provide information on what the child wants and thinks is best. (Here the age of a child influences the validity of his or her wants) It is also possible for a parent to request a GAL for their child. Other functions a GAL can perform include attending proceedings such as depositions and hearings involving the child, ordering mental or physical evaluations for the child and/or anyone directly caring for the child, filing pleadings for a child’s protection, and investigating pleadings and allegations which involve the child in any way.
In Florida, a Guardian Ad Litem can be an attorney but is more typically a neutral third party who has taken a mandatory training course and become certified by Florida’s Guardian Ad Litem program or a legal aid program. The GAL will chronicle his or her investigation and submit the findings and recommendations to the program office prior to the hearing to make sure it conforms to program guidelines as well as Florida law. When approved, the final report will be filed with the court and served to all parties at least 20 days before the appropriate hearing. As mentioned in the definition, a GAL serves only during the duration of the case and is not a part of a child’s life following the closure and final adjudication.