Guardians Ad Litem (GALs): What They Do & Look For

One of the many people to know in a child custody case is the guardian ad litem (GAL).

The term guardian ad litem means "guardian of the case." The court assigns them to work with children and, in states like New York, adults who are unable to participate in the court process due to disability or incapacitation.

The GAL's input holds serious implications for the outcome of the case.

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What is a guardian ad litem?

A guardian ad litem is a lawyer, a volunteer or a mental health professional who determines the child's needs, then works to ensure their best interests are upheld in court. They're tasked with conducting an investigation to figure out what custody situation best suits the child, and whether protections like supervised visitation are necessary.


The court typically reserves the appointment of a guardian ad litem for neglect, abuse and dependency cases. In North Carolina, the Department of Social Services must open a case for one of the aforementioned issues to get a GAL on the case.

Wisconsin courts and a few others may assign a GAL simply because parents can't reach a custody agreement. It's also possible for a parent to request a GAL for their case, but the judge must agree one is needed.


States like Virginia, where the GAL is also the child's lawyer, only allow attorneys to serve as guardians ad litem. Elsewhere, no legal background is required. The court may appoint a lawyer to work alongside the GAL if need be.

Regardless of professional background, the applicant must undergo training. They may also have to pass a criminal background check and participate in a screening interview before being sworn in.

What does a guardian ad litem do?

In the order assigning a guardian ad litem, the court will specify what they want them to investigate. Their task could be to look at the child's living situation as a whole or to look at one or two specific issues (e.g., a parent's substance abuse issues or mental health).

Unless they're also the child's lawyer, the guardian is more of a fact finder for the court than an advocate. (Attorneys ad litem fulfill the advocacy role.) The guardian ad litem:

  • Looks for information that could help the judge make an informed custody decision
  • Works with other professionals involved in the case
  • Interviews parents, the child, relatives, teachers, etc.
  • Reviews medical, school and other reports
  • Attends court sessions
  • Makes home visits to see the child's living situation

The GAL writes a report based on their findings. It includes a recommendation for a custody arrangement and any other details that could impact the judge's decision. Only parents, their attorneys and the court can view the report.

What is a guardian ad litem looking for?

The guardian ad litem looks for anything that could affect the child's well-being and the parent-child relationship, such as:

  • The stability of each parent's home
  • How well parents can cooperate or their ability to learn to cooperate
  • Parents' mental health
  • Parents' history of crime, violence or substance abuse

While they can take the child's wants into account, the GAL will always put the child's best interest at the forefront. If their recommendation goes against the child's wishes, the court may ask the GAL to explain their decision.

How much does a guardian ad litem cost?

Generally, parents are responsible for paying the guardian ad litem unless they provide the court with proof they cannot afford to.

Fees vary by location. Flat fees range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $750 or more. Hourly fees can range from as little as $30 to $250 or more. Parents will have to pay a retainer fee to reserve services for a set number of hours if the GAL charges hourly.

Some GALs are volunteers who don't receive any compensation for their work.

A parent's role in the guardian ad litem's investigation

As a parent, you must cooperate with the investigation. You'll likely have to participate in an interview or fill out a written questionnaire regarding your family history, relationship with your child, the reason for the custody conflict, etc.

Plus, you'll have to allow the GAL to have access to speak with your child. You should never coach your child on what to say. If you do, you'll make it harder for the GAL to figure out what will benefit your child.

The GAL will likely conduct a home visit. Home visits are usually scheduled in advance but sometimes the GAL drops in without notice. They may take photos and videos of your living space and talk to any third parties living with you. The home visit is typically short, not lasting longer than half an hour.

If you're concerned the GAL isn't looking out for your child's best interest, you can talk to the guardian directly or file a complaint with the court. The court could remove the GAL from the case if they aren't fulfilling their duty.

Some states give attorneys or parents representing themselves in court the opportunity to question the GAL about their investigation and report at trial. However, jurisdictions tend to have laws in place that prevent parents from suing the guardian ad litem if they acted in good faith and are not guilty of gross negligence.

Professional technology

The professionals working on your case have many tools on hand. One of them is available to parents, too: Custody X Change.

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