Frequently Asked Questions About Guardians ad Litem

A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is a key player in family court proceedings. Wisconsin Statute 767.407 provides that the court shall typically appoint a guardian ad litem for a minor child in any action affecting the family if the legal custody or physical placement of the child is contested. In other words, if the minor child’s parents cannot agree on custody and placement between themselves, a GAL is appointed to determine what custody and placement terms are best for the child. Parents often have questions about how a GAL functions. Many of the most commonly questions are answered below. Should you have further questions, feel free to reach out to Hawks Quindel to speak with one of our family law attorneys.

a. What does a GAL do?

GAL’s are appointed to advocate for the best interest of the minor child. They are not the child’s attorney, but rather, they investigate factors in the child’s life to determine what custody and placement terms would be in their best interest. What the child wants can play a part in this, but only to an extent. The weight the GAL gives to a child’s preferences can often increase depending on the child’s age. For example, if a 16 year old prefers to stay with mom, a GAL would likely weigh that more heavily in their recommendation than if a four year old expressed such preferences. However, keep in mind that as long as the child is a minor, they will not be able to make their own decisions about what is best for them. This is up to the court to decide, based in part on the recommendation of the GAL.

b. Do GAL’s cost money? Who pays the fees?

Yes, GALs are paid for their work, typically at a set hourly rate. A GAL will typically have a retainer that the parties must pay at the beginning of the case. This retainer is often divided equally unless the judge orders differently, depending on the parties’ financial circumstances. If the parties are low-income, the county may pay the GAL and then the parents reimburse the county at the county rate – typically lower than the GAL’s private pay rate.

c. How does the GAL obtain information necessary to make a recommendation?

The GAL will typically ask each party for contact information for individuals in the minor child’s life. This may include health care providers, teachers, counselors, coaches, and so on. The GAL will contact these individuals to gain a better understanding of the child’s life and perspective from adults in their life other than the parents. The GAL will also review evidence that the parent(s) find important to the evaluation of custody and placement. For example, if a parent has safety concerns supporting their desire that the other parent does not have placement, supporting documentation such as a police report is important to supply. In another situation, one parent may not want the other parent to have placement due to failure to

d. How extensive are the GAL’s recommendations?

The GAL’s recommendations will include details relevant to their appointment. For example, if the Guardian ad Litem is appointed to give a recommendation on custody and placement, their recommendations may be very expansive. Details may include how often the child should be at which parent’s house, and whether one parent should have sole custody or if joint custody is in the child’s best interest. If the parents cannot agree on where the child should go to school, the GAL will investigate and make a recommendation on that as well. Regarding anything that is in dispute between the parties, the GAL will typically make a recommendation.

e. I don’t like the GAL assigned to my case. How can I get a new one?

It is very unlikely that the court would appoint a new GAL. They are often chosen specifically by the court based on their credentials, and discharging them only becomes relevant if the parties no longer agree. A party is free to voice their concerns about the GAL to the court, but unless there are legitimate facts behind such concerns, the court will not simply appoint a new GAL.

f. Will the judge adopt the GAL’s recommendations if I don’t agree with them?

The GAL’s recommendations are persuasive to the court, and it can often be an uphill battle to fight them. The court appoints a GAL to learn information that is cannot necessarily access, and relies on the GAL to be an independent set of eyes and ears. However, the court does not simply adopt the GAL’s recommendations without consideration. Both parties will have the opportunity to say whether they agree with the recommendations. If they do not and they wish to fight such recommendations, both parties are free to request a hearing on the issue.

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Naomi Swain
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