If a guardian ad litem (GAL) is appointed by the court in your custody case in Virginia, what do you need to know? First of all, the GAL is an independent operator on behalf of the children’s best interests. They are like a “roving judge” in your case, empowered to interview parents, children, third parties, and to observe the home environment. They eventually report back to the judge at trial with their findings and recommendations.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines a GAL as “a guardian, usually a lawyer, appointed by the court to appear in a lawsuit on behalf of an incompetent or minor party.” Rule 8:6 of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia describes the role of GALs as follows:
The role of counsel for a child is the representation of the child’s legitimate interests. When appointed for a child, the guardian ad litem shall vigorously represent the child, fully protecting the child’s interest and welfare. The guardian ad litem shall advise the court of the wishes of the child in any case where the wishes of the child conflict with the opinion of the guardian ad litem as to what is in the child’s interest and welfare.
Beyond these limitations, GALs have the freedom to operate as they see fit to adequately represent the children’s interests. In addition to meeting with the parents and children, they may contact teachers, therapists and doctors, in order to gain a clearer picture of the issues at hand. They are also permitted to obtain and review any relevant records, such as school and medical reports, court documents, etc.
As a party to a custody case with a GAL, it’s important for you to form a good relationship with the GAL from the beginning. Call him or her frequently to show that you’re engaged in the process. Offer assistance and ask for advice. Be courteous and candid during interviews and in-home visits. Stay humble and deferential to the GAL, treating him or her as though they are the judge themselves. Avoid trashing the other side, and instead focus on your own parenting abilities and efforts to co-parent with your estranged spouse. Keep in mind that for as long as you are in the presence of the GAL, you are under observation and must be on your best behavior.
The GAL should be copied on all pleadings in your case, including discovery, and he or she will be free to file motions with the court based upon the best interests of the children.
After the GAL has had the opportunity to conduct interviews and in-home visits, he or she will sometimes prepare a written report of her findings and recommendations. However, more commonly the report is oral, typically given at the end of the trial. Counsel and the judge will then have the opportunity to ask questions of the GAL, as to the basis for their opinions and the thoroughness of their investigation.
The GAL’s recommendation in a case typically carries a great deal of weight, and in many circumstances is the determining factor for a judge faced with a “he said, she said” set of facts and no other method of getting to the truth.
If you find yourself involved in a custody dispute where the court has appointed a GAL, it is best to consult with your own independent legal counsel as soon as possible. Livesay & Myers, P.C. has a team of experienced custody lawyers across offices in Fairfax, Arlington, Leesburg, Manassas, and Fredericksburg, representing clients across Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.