So, your attorney tells you that a guardian ad litem has been appointed in your case. He or she oftentimes hands you a copy of the appointment order, and tells you to make your appointment with the GAL. What can you expect? A guardian ad litem can be appointed by a judge in all proceedings for child custody or for dissolution of marriage or legal separation where custody, visitation, or support of a child is a contested issue. The court must appoint a guardian ad litem in any proceeding in which child abuse or neglect is alleged.
The GAL is charged with representing your child or children in the pending legal proceedings. He or she must also conduct all necessary interviews with persons having contact with or knowledge of the child in order to ascertain the child’s wishes, feelings, attachments and attitudes. The GAL will eventually make a custody recommendation to the court, and while the recommendation is not determinative of the outcome of the case, the court will place substantial weight on what the guardian recommends. In light of their potential influence on your case as a whole, how do you make the most of your first meeting with the GAL? Most guardian ad litems, in my experience, will meet with Mom and Dad individually at least once, for a standard one hour appointment. They may request subsequent meetings with either parent, or they may not. They have the ability to interview the children if they see fit.
Each GAL conducts their investigations differently. The tips below will help you be prepared for your first meeting with your GAL, and will assist you in focusing the GAL’s investigation on what you deem to be important.
1. Be prepared to tell a brief history of your relationship. The GAL does not want to hear every single detail about how you met your spouse, or what color scheme you had at the wedding. However, he or she will want to know the circumstances surrounding the couple and what brought them together.
2. Be prepared to frankly discuss the circumstances that brought the relationship to an end. The guardian will want to know what exactly brought you to the point of contested custody litigation.
3. Following the point listed above, do not spend your time “bad-mouthing” the other parent. Guardians take notice when a parent takes the high road and discusses the facts and circumstances of the case. Contested custody litigation is emotional, and any lawyer practicing in the field of domestic relations understands that point. However, the judge has to look at the facts of the case. It’s best to do what you can to spend your time with the GAL discussing the facts so he or she is adequately informed regarding your case.
4. Be prepared to address the question “What will the other party say about you?” This is a question designed to draw out what you believe to be your strongest and weakest points as a parent. Be sure to have an answer ready, as this shows your ability to recognize that you aren’t the perfect parent.
5. Be ready to discuss your parenting style. Whether you are a laid back parent that has never uttered the word “grounded” or a strict disciplinarian, you can’t help what you are. Be honest, and if your parenting style differs from your spouse, be sure to tell that to the GAL.
6. Remember to discuss family members that play an important role in your child or children’s lives. If Grandma picks the kids up from school everyday, or Aunt is the daycare provider, the GAL will want to know. This sheds light on the structure of the family, and makes the guardian aware that there are perhaps other people that he or she should speak to in conducting their investigation.
7. Have some idea of your child’s daily routine. The GAL will want to know if your kids are involved in sports after school, or if they go to before/after care. They will want to know dinner times, homework time, bed times. By getting an idea of the child’s schedule, he or she will get to know a bit about the child before even meeting them.
8. Provide the GAL with a list of helpful people to speak when conducting their investigation. Provide them with names of family, friends, neighbors – anyone who can speak to how you interact with your children. A list of people a mile long who will say what a wonderful person you are, but have never seen you with your child, does not help a GAL in the least. Keep your list to between three to five people who have seen you interact with your children and can speak to the kind of parent you are.
9. Provide the GAL with a list of teachers if there is a problem with schoolwork/discipline, doctors if there is a medical issue, and any counselors or therapists who the children may be seeing. Due to HIPAA and stringent privacy laws regarding schools, volunteer to sign any releases the GAL may request at your first meeting. Also provide the GAL with any custody calendars you may be keeping. Journals may also be helpful, but discuss the same with your attorney before handing it to the GAL for his or her review.
10. Remind yourself, and the guardian, that you want what’s best for your children. Contested litigation inherently breeds self-focus in parents. A simple statement to a GAL of “I want what’s best for my child” will be remembered.
Scott Trout is the Managing Partner of Cordell & Cordell, P.C. He is licensed in Missouri, Illinois and Georgia.