Guardians Ad Litem: An Introduction

February 12, 2015

On January 28th, Florida Governor Rick Scott  proposed a $77 billion budget for the new fiscal year. One of the highlights of Governor Scott’s budget proposal is its inclusion of funding for an additional 77.5 guardian ad litem positions in the state.

Children often become involved in the legal system, whether due to a divorce, abuse, or a variety of other civil matters. Sadly, the adults in their lives do not always act in their best interests. Fortunately, Florida law provides for guardians ad litems to advocate for and defend children’s interests in court. A  guardian ad litem or GAL is a person appointed by the court to represent the best interests of a child.

Guardians ad litem are used in  several situations:

  • Dependency proceedings (abuse, abandonment, or neglect), whether civil or criminal
  • Divorce proceedings
  • Termination of parental rights
  • In any suit where a minor or an incompetent person is a party but lacks a representative such as a parent or guardian

How to Get a Guardian Ad Litem

In order for a child to receive the services of a GAL, either party can request a guardian’s appointment or the court, of its own initiative, can decide to appoint one. The court will select and appoint a GAL when a child’s parents have a serious conflict over what will happen to the child or when there are substantial concerns about the child’s well-being.

Qualifications

Guardians ad litem are to act as the “ next friend” of a child or incapacitated person. Thus, they must be trained to advocate for the child and act in his or her best interest. Some guardians ad litem are lawyers, but many are not.

For a GAL to be appointed to represent a child in a case involving the dissolution of marriage, the creation of a parenting plan, or for abuse, abandonment, or neglect, the guardian can  qualify in three ways:

  1. The guardian may be certified by Florida’s Guardian Ad Litem Program, which requires that the guardian:
  • Pass a background check,
  • Never have been convicted of or entered a guilty or no contest plea to any of several serious crimes, and
  • Complete training and certification under this program.
  1. The guardian may be certified by a nonprofit legal aid organization, which requires that the guardian:
  • Pass a background check,
  • Never have been convicted of or entered a guilty or no contest plea to any of several serious crimes, and
  • Complete training and certification through the organization.
  1. The guardian may be a member in good standing of The Florida Bar.

Duties and Powers

Guardians ad litem have several duties and powers to act in the child’s behalf. Guardians can:

  • Investigate the history, environment, relationships, and needs of the child
  • Interview those who have information regarding the child’s welfare, such as family, teachers, friends, doctors, and the children themselves
  • Inspect medical and other pertinent records
  • Obtain expert examinations for the child or the parents
  • Help all parties involved to collaborate to best meet the child’s needs
  • Advocate the child’s best interests to the court
  • Address the court and testify to the court
  • Make recommendations to the court
  • Participate in all proceedings involving the child
  • Submit written reports that include recommendations to the court
    • These reports usually include a statement of what the child wants, even if this does not coincide with the guardian’s recommendations
  • Review disposition recommendations and changes to the child’s placement
  • Monitor the child’s situation to ensure that the court’s orders are being carried out

Payment

The parties to a proceeding are required to pay for the services of a GAL. However, if the parents are unable to pay, the guardian can agree to serve for no fee or a reduced fee. The judge sets the guardian’s fee and tells the parents what percentage to pay.

If you are dealing with a case that involves the welfare of a child, an experienced family law attorney can advise you on how to obtain the best outcome for your child and you. Please contact  West Palm Beach family law attorney William Wallshein for a free consultation.