A Guardian ad Litem’s Role in a Family Law Case

Guardian ad Litems (GAL) have a significant role in the modern family law arena. It can be somewhat shocking for a parent going through divorce or custody proceedings to find out that a GAL has been appointed. It’s understandable to wonder why a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) is being appointed to your case and what his or her role is. So, here are a few tips about a GAL’s role and how to work with a GAL on your case.

Missouri Law requires the appointment of a GAL in family law cases where there are allegations of abuse or neglect of a child. A GAL may be appointed in family law matters that do not involve abuse or neglect. Some examples of when a GAL may be appointed are when parents are having trouble communicating or co-parenting with each other, or if parents cannot agree on a major decision the needs to be made for the child. In these situations, a GAL’s role is to investigate the case and present a recommendation to the court regarding the best interests of the child.

A common stereotype is that a GAL is “an attorney for the child.” This is not completely true. It is correct that an experienced family law attorney is typically appointed as a GAL. However, a GAL does not keep most communications confidential, nor is the GAL required to follow the exact wishes of the child when making a recommendation. Ultimately, the GAL will provide his or her recommendation to the parents, attorneys, and/or Judge, which could be regarding a specific, narrow issue, or something as broad as a parenting plan. The GAL will consider most factors, if not all, that are outlined under Missouri law when making a recommendation.

It is important for parents to work with, not against, a GAL. That said, it is not easy for parents to work with someone who is evaluating their parenting from an outside perspective. Parents must remember that a GAL’s focus on the best interests of the child and not on the legal position of the parent. A GAL will certainly consider a parent’s perspective during their investigation. However, the child’s interests and the parent’s interests are not always identical, especially in emotional or contested situations. Therefore, here are some tips on how to work with a GAL on your case:

1) Be patient – GAL’s are not assigned to your case only. An experienced GAL’s typically have 10-40 cases going on at once. A parent needs to understand that it is their “job” to be available for the GAL, not the other way around.

2) Understand a GAL’s Perspective – A GAL is a neutral third party who usually has significant experience in family law cases. He or she will be conducting informal investigations and then making a legal recommendation. Therefore, a GAL’s recommendation could be based on factors that hold more legal “weight” than other factors. Additionally, a GAL will put more weight on evidence rather than unverified allegations.

3) Be Respectful – I can’t emphasize this enough; a GAL does not work for you. A GAL does not work for the other parent either. GAL’s work for a child’s best interest under Missouri law and public policy. This means that a GAL’s position will not always fall completely in line with your position. However, this does not mean that the GAL will always disagree with you.

4) Assist the GAL’s investigation – Work with your attorney to fully brief a GAL on your position. A GAL should always be aware of what is happening in the case. This means to make documents, communications, or other forms of evidence available to the GAL for his or her file.  A GAL will be able to make a more complete investigation which could help you in the long run.

In conclusion, parents should know that GALs are an important part of family law. GALs assist Judges with their overwhelming family law dockets by providing insight into the particulars of a case. This allows Judges to be more informed about their cases. Therefore, parents should always speak with their attorneys about the possibility of a GAL being appointed to their case and what to expect moving forward.