Written by attorney Joseph Alan Lambson

Missouri Child Custody: What is a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL)?

If you are a party to a child custody battle, you may be wondering why a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) is being appointed to assist with your case, and what his or her role is. In a nutshell, a GAL is an attorney appointed to represent the best interests of the child. While a GAL is an attorney, he or she is not your child’s attorney, and does not have to follow the wishes of the child or keep confidential any communication the child makes.

A GAL may be appointed in dissolutions, modifications, paternity actions, adoptions, and certain cases involving child abuse or neglect. Under Missouri law, a guardian ad litem must be appointed to any child custody case where child abuse or neglect is alleged. A GAL may be appointed in other custody cases where abuse or neglect has not been alleged if the court finds that appointment of a GAL would be useful, or the parties request the appointment of a GAL.

The role of the GAL is to conduct an investigation into the case and present a recommendation to the court. Usually much of the GAL’s investigation involves informal discovery. A GAL will usually begin by meeting with the parties and the children separately. They will also often interview other people who may have relevant information to the child’s welfare. They may ask parents to sign releases to receive the child’s school records, medical records, or mental health records.

A GAL may ask other experts, such as a psychologist or social worker, to provide input and potentially offer testimony in a case. If there is alleged drug or alcohol abuse, a GAL may ask the judge to order drug or alcohol screening.

Some of the things a GAL may consider when making a recommendation are: the wishes of your child and both parents; whether a parent has engaged in a pattern or serious incident of interspousal battery; the safety and well-being of the child and the safety of the parent who was the victim of the battery or abuse; your child’s interaction and relationship with you and other family members; the amount and quality of time you have spent with your child in the past; any necessary and reasonable custodial and life-style changes you propose to make to spend time with your child in the future; your child’s adjustment to home, school, religion, and community; your child’s age and developmental and educational needs at various ages; the mental or physical health of a parent, the child, or other person living in the proposed custodial household; the need for regularly occurring and meaningful placement to provide predictability and stability for your child; availability of child care services; the cooperation and communication between parents and whether either one unreasonably refuses to cooperate or communicate with the other; a parent’s likelihood to interfere in the other parent?s continuing relationship with the child; any physical abuse or problems with alcohol or drugs; the reports of appropriate professionals; and other significant factors that would affect your child’s well-being.

A judge decides who pays for a GAL. Often, each parent is responsible for one-half of the GAL’s total costs, including the GAL’s time and investigation costs, such as tests and experts. The court also may require the parents to pay an initial deposit and periodic payments to the GAL during the case. However, Missouri courts have held that in adult abuse or child order of protection cases, courts cannot require the victim to pay the costs of a GAL.

A GAL serves in a case until either the parents reach a written agreement resolving the issues and the judge approves it, or there is a hearing and the judge decides the case. The judge can discharge the GAL if one is no longer necessary. If your case is appealed, the GAL is involved in the appeal process unless the court orders otherwise. If a new motion is filed in your case in the future, the judge may reappoint the same or a different GAL as an advocate for your child’s best interests.

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