A Guardian Ad Litem, commonly referred to as a “GAL”, plays a significant role in divorce and post-divorce cases where child custody and visitation are at issue. A GAL is almost always appointed in highly contested child custody cases. If the GAL is experienced and capable, the court more often than not adopts the recommendations of the GAL.
It is not uncommon in a Massachusetts divorce or custody case for the court to appoint a GAL. A GAL is an impartial, third-party professional appointed by the court to report on and/or advise the court on matters relating to a minor. A GAL may not advocate or act as an attorney for the child because the child’s preference may be contrary to what is in his or her best interests, which is what the GAL is bound to determine.
There are different categories of a GAL; including an Investigator; Evaluator; and a “Next Friend”. While the Court appoints an investigator to look into the facts relating to a family in a probate dispute, a GAL evaluator may be appointed to do psychological or clinical testing of the parties. A GAL may also act as a “Next Friend” when appointed to represent the interests of the minor child or an incapacitated person, as they are generally considered not to be able to make legal decisions. A GAL is appointed to look after the best interests of the child and report to the court, often through their report, what the GAL believes to be in the best interest of the child(ren). The GAL’s objective is to advocate for the child’s best interests in court. Specifically, the GAL may report on and make recommendations for the child’s living arrangements, relationships, child custody, parenting time, etc. Such recommendations will be made after the GAL meets with the parties, the child(ren), and collateral witnesses that each party may recommend. Collaterals may be friends, family, colleagues, and individuals who can speak as to what is in the best interest of your child(ren).
The GAL may also make recommendations for services that they feel to be in the best interests of the child and let the court know what the GAL hopes will happen in the case. Since courts often adopt the recommendations of the GAL, parties may consider appointing a GAL prior to proceeding to trial in efforts to resolve the conflicting issues.
Depending on the facts of a case, the court can either appoint a GAL independently, or at the request of one of the parties. GALs can be expensive, and the time required to conduct their investigations or evaluations, and provide their reports, can be lengthy. Generally, a GAL may either be a lawyer, psychologist, or social worker. If the GAL is appointed to write a report for the court, the Judge may allow the attorneys to have a copy and/or the parties to see the report. The report is more confidential than other court paperwork, and is impounded, meaning the report is separate and unavailable for public inspection. However, if your case proceeds to trial, the GAL report may be introduced into evidence if the GAL is available to testify and be cross-examined.
As a whole, a GAL has the ability to play a vital role in your divorce and/or child custody proceeding. The ability for the GAL to interview both parties, the child(ren), and other close family and friends, allows for a personalized and professional recommendation on what is in the best interest of your child.