The Role of Guardians ad Litem in Family Court Matters

In family court matters, a Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”) is an attorney who is appointed by the Judge to represent the concept of the “Best Interest of the Child.” This is different and easily confused with “representing the child.” It is important that the GAL provides the child the opportunity to have a voice and make that child’s voice known. However, it is equally as important that the GAL make it clear to the parties and the child that the child does not have the benefit or the burden of making the choice in these matters.

Further (and unlike a mediator), the GAL does not have to remain neutral in a matter. This means that the GAL’s recommendation may align with one parent’s position and not the other parent’s if the independent evaluation and investigation that was conducted by the GAL leads him/her to that position.

The appointed GAL has a duty to be a part of and approve all decisions that impact custody, placement, paternity, support, sharing of variable expenses, tax exemptions, school attendance, therapy, daycare, health care, transportation, extracurricular activities, insurance, uninsured expenses, child support or any other issue which affects the best interests of the child.

While the GAL is expected to advocate for the best interests of the child, the GAL is not expected to be a private investigator, social worker, therapist, etc. As a legal advocate, the GAL may file motions on behalf of the best interest of the child, referring the child or other members of the family to therapy or counseling, or requesting psychological evaluations of the parties and/or the child.

The GAL should convey recommendations to the parties and/or their counsel before court (if possible) and should provide a brief status of the work that is being done on the case at each court appearance.

The GAL should work with the parties to attempt to resolve the issues related to the children outside of court, as there are almost no circumstances where a trial on these issues is in the best interests of the child.

Since Guardians ad Litem are appointed by the Judge on your matter, you often do not have a say as to which GAL is assigned to your case. However, with any GAL it is important to cooperate with his/her investigation, and to present all information and evidence that you believe the GAL must know in order to make a sound recommendation for the best interests of the child.

If you are considering a court action that will eventually involve a Guardian ad Litem or you are in the middle of a court action involving a Guardian ad Litem, please feel free to contact our office at (414) 258-1644 for a free consultation to discuss how to best prepare for and navigate a GAL investigation.


How to Win a Custody Battle

There is one sure-fire way to win a custody battle.  Ready for it?  Here it is: don’t act like you are trying to win a custody battle.  What??  You read that correctly.  Trust me, I have 20 years of family law experience.  I know what I am talking about.  I have a fool-proof method which I share with my clients – listen to my advice, act like a grown-up, act like you care about your kids, think before you react, admit your shortcomings and do something about them.  There, you’ve won your custody case.

In Wisconsin, the standard for making a custody or placement determination is what is in the best interests of the children.  By the way, I refer to it as a custody battle because that is the common term but, usually, it is a placement dispute.  Custody is legal decision making only.  Placement is where the child resides, with whom and what type of visitation will be ordered.  With regards to the best interests of the children, you can read the research but it is very clear – kids do best when their parents don’t fight and communicate.  Simple, right?  If it was simple, I would be out of a job.

It seems counter-intuitive to not fight.  You need to fight for your rights!  You are “entitled” to what you want.  You know best for your kids because ____ (insert excuse).  Your soon-to-be-ex is a _____ (insert expletive).  You have to let the kids know what is really going on!  You have to defend yourself!  Wait – who is this about again?  You or the kids?  Of course this isn’t about the kids – it’s about you.  This is the attitude you need to “divorce” yourself from (pun intended).

No one is perfect.  Not one single person on this earth is a perfect person, perfect spouse, perfect parent.  Why not acknowledge that?  Don’t be defensive – it is true of everyone.  All you need to do is to find out or admit your failings and fix them.  This isn’t a criminal case – an admission of guilt doesn’t send you to the slammer.  There is not one judge, Guardian ad Litem, social worker who will think less of you for admitting that you are not perfect and to be willing to fix your problems.  This is especially true if your spouse never learns this lesson.

The next step is to figure out what is best for your kids.  Is it in your kids best interest to have a healthy and strong relationship with both parents?  Of course it is!  That does not translate to counting days, power, control, whatever.  Just because you’re the mom, doesn’t make you genetically predisposed to being a better parent. Aren’t your kids entitled to have a strong relationship with their dad? Just because you’re dad, doesn’t give you “rights” over your kids.  What about your kids’ rights?

I always tell my clients that they need to come to court with “clean hands.”  In a custody battle, this means always, always trying to be the best parent you can be.  Act like an adult.  Encourage the relationship between the child(ren) and the other parent.  Communicate in a civil and constructive way (by email, if possible, so you have written documentation).  Be flexible even when it is not convenient.  DO NOT, under any circumstances, discuss your divorce with your children!!!

Even if all of this means that you are taken advantage of by the other parent, even if this means that you feel like they are winning and you are losing, you will be far better off in the long run.  The judges, court commissioners, Guardian ad Litem and social workers will all respect you and think you are a wonderful parent.  Because you are being a wonderful parent if you do these things.  YOU are putting the kids ahead of you. YOU are looking out for the best interests of the kids.

And, in the long run, this will win you your custody battle, even if there isn’t one.  It is hard to fight about or with someone who is unwilling to create the battle in the first place.  And, if the other parent still insists on fighting with someone who is behaving this way, they are the ones who will look bad and you will prevail in the end.

Trust me.

Teri M Nelson