When a couple who has children decides to separate, ideally they can come to a custody and visitation arrangement with the help of legal counsel. However, if they aren’t able to come to an agreement, custody will be decided by the court. Many times, in high conflict custody cases, the judge will benefit from having a third party appointed to report back to the Court on both the best interest of the child and the child’s preference on issues of custody. There are three types of appointments a parent can seek from the Court.
A GAL, or Guardian Ad Litem, can be requested by either parent or by the judge to investigate and make recommendations on issues of child custody and visitation. The GAL essentially serves as the “eyes and ears” of the judge outside of the courtroom. A GAL is typically a mental health professional or an attorney. As part of the GAL’s investigation, the parents will be interviewed, the GAL will meet with the child(ren), and sometimes the GAL will ask for collateral witnesses who can speak on behalf of either party’s parenting skills. After conducting a thorough investigation, the GAL will report their findings and make a formal child custody and visitation recommendation to the court. A judge may or may not agree with this recommendation. In most cases, the court will order the cost of the GAL be shared equally 50/50, proportionally based on each parent’s income, or solely by one parent. In extreme cases the court may order payment of the GAL’s fees through a state appointment.
During a child custody dispute, the judge may appoint a Family Service Officer to conduct an investigation and make recommendations on issues of child custody and visitation. The Family Service Officer gathers information about the case from the parents and their attorneys, speaking with the child(ren), possible collateral witnesses, and provides this information along with recommendations to the judge.
In some child custody disputes, it makes sense for the child to be appointed a lawyer of their own to advocate for their interests. A lawyer can be appointed when the court deems it necessary or if one or both of the parents requests a lawyer for the child and the court agrees that such appointment will be beneficial to the case. Unlike the appointment of a GAL or Probation Investigation, the Child Counsel’s role is to advocate for the child’s desires and preferences. While sometimes the child’s desires and preferences are consistent with the best interest of the child, that is not always the case.
Child custody disputes can be stressful for everyone involved, including the child. In the interests of the child, it’s advisable for parents to work together to come to an agreeable custody arrangement. When that isn’t possible, the court will make a decision that it believes is best for the child.