In high conflict child custody cases in Massachusetts, it is not uncommon for the court to appoint a Guardian ad Litem (also known as a GAL). However, many parents do not know what a GAL is, and what a GAL is supposed to do in a child custody case until the GAL is appointed. If you are a parent in a high conflict child custody case, it is important to know who a GAL is and what he/she does before the case even starts.
Q: What is a GAL?
A: A GAL is a person (usually a Family Law Attorney or mental health professional who works with families) appointed by the court to investigate the issue of child custody and/or parenting time for a family in the midst of a child custody case.
Q: What does the GAL do?
A: The GAL is required to conduct an investigation whereby he/she speaks with the parents, child(ren), and anyone else necessary and relevant to the case (e.g. school teachers, doctors, family friends, family members, family therapists, etc.) The GAL will also review any relevant documents for the case (e.g. medical records, school records, DCF records, etc.) After the GAL conducts his/her investigation, he/she files a report with the court making recommendations about custody and a parenting plan.
Q: Does the GAL represent the child(ren)?
A: No, the GAL is not someone who represents the children in court. Rather, the GAL is required to investigate what is in the child’s best interests. The GAL can consider a child’s wishes regarding custody and parenting time in coming to his/her recommendations, but ultimately the recommendations must be what is in the child’s best interests, even if that conflicts with what the child(ren) want for a parenting plan.
Q: How is a GAL appointed to a case?
A: A GAL can be appointed to a case in many ways. The most common ways are either parent requested a GAL (by way of a Motion to Appoint a Guardian ad Litem), or by the court taking it upon itself to appoint a GAL.
Q: Who pays for the GAL?
A: The parents pay for the GAL. It is not uncommon for the parents to equally share the cost of the GAL, but sometimes the GAL’s costs are allocated differently. In very rare cases, the state will pay for the GAL’s services.
Q: Is a GAL appointed in all custody cases?
A: No, GAL’s are typically only appointed in very high conflict custody cases where the parents cannot agree to custody and/or parenting time.
Q: Is the judge obligated to follow the GAL’s recommendations?
A: No, the recommendations are only a suggestion to the judge of what the custody arrangement and parenting schedule should be. However, it is not uncommon for the judge to give a great amount of weight and credence to the GAL’s recommendations.
Q: What if I don’t agree with the GAL’s recommendations?
A: If you, as a parent, disagree with the GAL’s recommendations, you can have your attorney question and cross-examine the GAL at trial as to his/her recommendations and the process he/she used to arrive at these recommendations.
Q: What is the benefit to having a GAL?
A: It is not uncommon that once the GAL files his/her report for parents to seriously consider the GAL’s recommendations. This typically facilitates settlement of the custody case.
Q: Should I have a GAL appointed to my case?
A: There is no “one size fits all” answer to this question. Whether a GAL should be appointed in a custody case should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and it typically depends on the specific facts of every case. This is something you should seriously discuss with your attorney before making the decision either way.