The Role of a Guardian ad Litem and What Parents Need to Know

On behalf of Peterson, Berk & Cross, S.C.

A guardian ad litem, also known as a GAL, is an attorney for the minor children in family law matters, such as divorce, legal separation, paternity and child custody cases.  A GAL is appointed by the court to represent the best interests of the children to ensure that the well-being of the children is at the forefront of the custody and placement orders and agreements. 

Under certain circumstances, a guardian ad litem may also be appointed on other types of cases involving minor children. A GAL may be appointed in cases of child neglect or abuse, in cases where parental rights are being terminated, in cases of adoption, in restraining order/injunction hearings involving children and personal injury cases involving minors.

The guardian ad litem does not, and cannot, represent either parent. If you hear your ex say that he has to call his guardian ad litem, don’t worry, he is likely misspeaking. The GAL only represents the minor children.

Fees & Costs

In Wisconsin, the fees and costs for the guardian ad litem are typically split equally by the parties. Usually the parents are required to pay an advance fee to either the Clerk of Court or to the GAL directly before an investigation can begin. The amount of the fee varies from county to county. Through the course of the investigation, the GAL may need to request that the parents make additional payments as well. Under some circumstances, one parent may be ordered to pay more of the fee than the other. Regardless of how the fees are split, the GAL still only represents the best interests of the children.

Factors in Custody & Placement Recommendations

When the court has to decide custody and placement issues, they look at 16 factors found in the Wisconsin statutes, section 767.41(5). The GAL will usually do an investigation and look at all of the factors while doing so. Depending on the case, the GAL may be asked to make recommendations regarding custody (decision making), placement, holiday schedules, vacations, school district and anything else relevant to the best interest of the children. The GAL’s investigation may consist of:

  • Meeting with both parents;
  • Meeting with the minor children;
  • Conducting home visits;
  • Talking to counselors;
  • Talking to teachers;
  • Reviewing medical records;
  • Reading counseling records;
  • Speaking to others who are involved in the children’s lives. 

Meeting with the Guardian ad Litem

Parents will be asked to schedule an appointment to meet with the guardian ad litem for an initial interview. It is important to schedule the meeting promptly. When meeting with the GAL it is imperative to focus on the relevant factors from the Wisconsin statute that the court will be considering. They may include:

  • Wishes of the parents;
  • Wishes of the children;
  • Amount of quality time each parent has spent with the children in the past;
  • Whether there are any issues with drugs or alcohol for either parent or persons who spend a significant amount of time with the children;
  • Whether there has been domestic violence in the home;
  • Mental health of the parents and children;
  • Whether one parent unreasonably interferes with the relationship of the children with the other parent;
  • Reports of any counselors;
  • Possible criminal history of the parents;
  • Parents’ work schedules;
  • Parents’ living situations;
  • Any other significant factors. 

What Should a Parent Provide to the Guardian ad Litem

A parent who is ordered to participate in a guardian ad litem investigation should be respectful of the investigation process and provide all information or documentation that is asked of them right away. The GAL’s opinion carries a lot of weight, so doing what is asked of you and behaving appropriately is crucial.

A good rule of thumb for parents is to provide documentation to the guardian ad litem that supports your concerns. If you can, make photocopies, rather than providing originals, this will save time and money in the long run. Examples include:

  • If the other parent has a history of domestic violence, provide any police reports, doctor visits due to the violence, photos of injuries, or photos of any damage done in the home.
  • If the other parent has a prior criminal history, provide criminal complaints or police reports.
  • If a child is seeing a counselor or a medical professional, provide records and signed releases or authorizations for the GAL to speak with the counselor.
  • If appropriate placement time is a concern, keep a calendar or a journal, documenting how often the other parent sees the children. Make copies of your documentation and provide it to the GAL. 
  • If you want to provide copies of written communication between you and the other parent, pick out the most relevant conversations to prove the point you are trying to make. Don’t give the GAL every communication – pick out the good ones! 
  • If you have references who will speak positively about your parenting, provide the GAL with a list of names of the relevant and important people in your case that you want contacted. 

How Does the Guardian ad Litem Make a Recommendation?

Once the guardian ad litem has completed the investigation, a GAL review hearing will be scheduled with the court. Some guardian ad litems provide a written recommendation prior to the hearing, while others prefer to give their recommendation during the hearing. The recommendation given can be temporary or final. If the parties do not agree with the recommendation of the GAL, the court will hold a contested hearing and make a final decision regarding the issues after considering all the evidence.