Working with a GAL

Guardians ad litem – attorneys appointed to represent the interests of the child(ren) involved in your family law case – are scary. They’re necessary, too, because in a lot of cases, they’re really the only ones with the ability to look at both sides and make a recommendation to the judge. But…they make a recommendation to the judge! And, in my experience, their recommendations are generally regarded pretty seriously.

So, yeah, that’s a little scary. Inviting someone you don’t know into your life, for the specific (and unnerving) purpose of ultimately making a recommendation to the judge about how much time your child should get to spend with you. It sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? But in cases where mom and dad can’t reach a resolution on their own, someone has to get involved and make a final determination. Obviously, it’s really up to the judge what he or she decides to do, but the Guardian ad litem has a lot of leeway to convince the judge to agree with him or her. After all, the GAL has the time to interview both parents, as well as the kids, (something a judge is not able to do), so he or she has a really valuable perspective. He or she has also been involved for a relatively long period of time, compared with the judge and others who might come in contact with the case, and has the time to craft a legitimate opinion.

My experience is that most people welcome a GAL at first. They think, “Surely, when someone else sees what’s going on, they’ll see what I see, and support my position!” Sometimes, that happens – those are the best cases. But it doesn’t always happen. And even in cases where the Guardian ad litem ultimately makes a recommendation for my client, it’s not always a warm and fuzzy road to get to that point. My clients usually feel pretty acutely, from the beginning, that they’re there to judge. That’s not a nice feeling. Especially for moms who are already stressed out from the rigors of facing a custody case in the first place.

So, what can you do? Well, in one sense—not a whole lot. If the court decides or the attorneys recommend the appointment of a Guardian ad litem, it’s probably going to be best to just roll with it. There’s no sense wasting a lot of time and energy fighting it; if yours is a contested case, chances are good a Guardian ad litem will be involved. Rather than opposing the appointment of the Guardian ad litem, your energy would be better focused on how to impress and convince the GAL.

What do I need to know to work effectively with my Guardian ad litem?

1. Learn about Virginia custody cases

I’m not suggesting you enroll in law school or anything crazy, but to the extent that you can learn about custody cases, you should. Our custody book  and custody seminar are both great ways to learn more about how custody cases work in Virginia.

The more you know, the better prepared you can be for what’s to come – including what the GAL will be looking for, and what he or she will expect from you.

2. Learn about the role of the GAL.

There’s a whole cast of characters in custody cases, and the more you know about who each person is and what their role will be in the ultimate determination of custody, the better!

Beware the GAL!  He or she has tremendous power, and it’s important that you know and understand this ahead of time – before you make any missteps that could hurt your case. The biggest thing to remember? He or she is not your friend, and wasn’t appointed to hold your hand through the case. Don’t dump all of your complaints about your child’s father on the Guardian ad litem; show how you’re most capable of focusing on the child’s best interests.

3. Be familiar with Virginia’s best interests of the child factors.

In Virginia, judges have to use the best interests of the child (LINK) factors to make decisions in custody and visitation cases. The more you know and understand about these factors, the better prepared you can be to talk with the Guardian ad litem as your case progresses.

4. Be careful what you put in writing!

The GAL will be able to see most everything you write. GAL will see the discovery, and you can bet that if you say something nasty to your husband in an email or text message, your husband will share it, and you’ll look just as bad as if you had said whatever you said to the GAL directly.

It doesn’t matter whether what you said is reasonable under the circumstances; if you look like you’re just as bad as he is, you’re doing him a favor. If you want your case to be as strong as possible, make sure that you represent yourself well in writing, even when you’re just talking to your child’s father. Even if he is a jerk. Let HIM be a jerk – you don’t fall into that trap yourself.

Ask yourself, before you say anything, “How would it sound if JUST THIS text message/email were read aloud in court, without any of his messages to provide context? Would I look heinous?” If the answer is “yes,” then don’t say it.

For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.

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