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What is a Guardian Ad Litem and When Do I Need One?

by | Jan 26, 2021 | Family Law

The world of family law can be a strange and confusing place for those individuals who are wading into these waters for the first time. There exists a number of procedures, phrases and actions that are completely foreign to people until they are going through a divorce or a custody battle. One such peculiarity is the guardian ad litem, What, or rather who, is guardian ad litem? First, the explanation for the odd name: “ad litem” is a Latin term (the legal profession loves to use those Latin phrases) and roughly translates to “of the (law)suit.” This is an apt name for this participant in a custody case, as the guardian ad litem or GAL, as it is often abbreviated, is a person that is appointed by the court essentially to “guard” the core of any child custody case: the best interests of the children. Guardians ad litem are most commonly appointed in child custody cases but are also often used in abuse and/or incapacity cases.

In Pennsylvania, a GAL must be either a licensed attorney or a licensed mental health professional, but it is usually the attorneys who take on the GAL job. However, unlike the attorneys that one or both parents may have retained to assist them in the case, the guardian ad litem does not technically advocate for, or even actually represent the children. Instead, the GAL’s primary focus is fact-finding and she or he performs an in-depth investigation of the facts surrounding the custody dispute. In order to properly perform this role, the GAL has to first undergo special training to investigate and help mediate custody dispute, after which they are deemed qualified to work as a guardian ad litem. In order to obtain a well rounded and accurate picture of the custody situation involved in each case, the GAL interviews (privately and separately) the children, the parents and any other relevant persons involved in the children’s day-to-day lives. The GAL also assesses the living situation at each parent’s home and the parent-child relationships for each parent.

When is the appointment of a GAL appropriate in a custody case? A guardian ad litem is often called in to assist in particularly acrimonious custody battles and custody disputes where the parents involved cannot agree on many (or sometimes any) of the major issues concerning the children. If the parties, the custody master or even the judge feel that the appointment of a GAL would be beneficial, the judge assigned to the case will issue an order appointing a guardian ad litem.  This order appointing the individual as GAL usually includes mandates that any/all medical providers, social services and/or educational faction cooperate with the GAL and provide her/him with any documents or information that the GAL requests. Such documentation and information is often crucial in allowing the GAL to complete a thorough investigation. The court will also decide, and set forth in the order, which party shall pay for the GAL’s services, with the cost often being shared between both parties. Once the GAL is done with the investigation, she/he writes up a report summarizing her/his findings and makes recommendation as to what custody parameters she/he feels are best for the children, based on all of the information gathered. The GAL’s recommendation is weighed very heavily by the master and/or the judge in the creation of the final custody order.

If you have questions or need assistance with a Pennsylvania child custody case, please give us a call. Our experienced Pennsylvania family law practitioners would be happy to provide a free consult regarding your child custody issues.

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