I am writing this article to provide suggestions and guidance for your interactions with the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL.) These are tips I have learned over many years of family law practice. Following these suggestions will maximize your chance of making a positive first impression and get you a step closer to obtaining your goals.
What is a Guardian Ad Litem?
The Guardian Ad Litem is an attorney appointed by the Judge to represent the best interest of children. They do this by investigating and then writing a report for the Judge. The GAL will meet with both parents, speak with any witnesses provided by the parents, talk to teachers, coaches, counselors, and other persons having information about the children. They will also review school records, medical records, counseling records, and additional information.
Aside from the Judge, the GAL has the most influence on the outcome of your case. The GAL does not make decisions like a Judge. Still, the GAL will investigate and recommend custody and visitation to the court. The court will generally give an incredibly significant amount of weight to the GAL recommendations. Therefore, the outcome of your case will depend largely upon the recommendations of the GAL.
Bring a pen and paper and take notes:
Be prepared to take notes during your meeting with the GAL. The GAL may ask for documents or information or make suggestions of things you should do. Taking notes shows you know this is serious and also helps you do not forget anything.
Honesty is always the best policy and nowhere more so than in a court proceeding. You must be accurate. Your credibility will be an essential factor in the GAL’s recommendations. Often Mom will be saying one thing, and Dad will be saying something different. The GAL then has to get to the bottom of what is actually going on. The more credible you are, the greater the odds that the GAL will think your version of events is accurate.
Never make allegations that you cannot easily prove. Remember, there is a vast difference between what you know and what you can prove. One of the quickest ways to lose credibility is to make allegations you cannot prove. If you can’t back it up, don’t say it.
Bring a list of people you would like the GAL to speak to on your behalf. It can be friends, family members, teachers, counselors, coaches, clergy, etc. Give the GAL the name, address, and phone number for each person. This will make it easy for the GAL to contact these people.
Also, give the GAL a summary of what each person can say to help you. This is especially important. You want to tell the GAL who they should talk to and what each person will say. Knowing what each person can say allows the GAL to ask the right questions. Do not make the GAL guess or dig for information. Instead, make very clear what you have and what you want the GAL to get out of it.
Documents and Photographs
You should provide the GAL any documents you think will help. These would be emails, text messages, photos, school records, medical records, etc. However, do not bury the GAL in hundreds of documents and photos. Use enough stuff to make your point, but do not overdo it.
Contact me before you meet with the GAL, and I will review your witnesses and any documents you think might help you. We will then work together to decide what is most helpful and what you should give the GAL.
Know Every Detail about your Child/Children:
The GAL will ask you about your child. Where many people go wrong is they immediately talk about what they want for custody or visitation. Or even worse, they start talking about how horrible the other parent is. Do not do that.
When the GAL asks about your child, they want to see how well you know the child. Use this opportunity to show the GAL you are a very involved parent. The more you know about the child, the better.
At a minimum, you should know the child’s birthdate (obvious, I know, but there is a reason I included this), favorite color, favorite food, activities, hobbies, favorite television show/movies, teachers’ names, coaches, etc. You should also be able to describe the child’s personality. This is critical.
You would be surprised how little some people know about their kids. Knowing these details will make a lasting impression on the GAL and be a big boost for you.
It is extremely easy to forget small details, so make notes and bring your notes with you to your meeting.
Discipline in the Home:
Be prepared to talk about discipline in your home. Things have changed since I was a kid, so “I whoop his little ass” is probably not the best answer in today’s climate. However, since you now know this question is coming, spend some time thinking about how you will respond and be prepared to explain the steps you take to enforce the rules.
Attend all of the child’s activities
DO NOT DELEGATE YOUR SPOUSE/SIGNIFICANT TO DO YOUR PARENTING!!! It is important that you are doing all of these things yourself!!! I can’t emphasize this enough.
I realize that work commitments can be an issue, but attend parent/teacher conferences, games, practices, school functions, etc. Also, talk to the child’s teacher. Make sure the teacher knows you and has consistent contact with you. Periodically ask how the child is doing in class as far as behavior and grades. Also, make sure you are receiving copies of report cards. My experience is most teachers will give you their email, so even if you have a rigid work schedule, it makes it easy to stay in touch.
The GAL will probably talk to teachers, counselors, coaches, etc. You want these people to say they know you and that you actively participate in these activities. The worst-case scenario is for the GAL to call the teacher, and they have never met you. Almost as bad is the teacher/counselor/coach has only had contact with your current spouse or significant other and not you. I have seen it happen, don’t let that happen to you.
Always Be Polite:
Meeting the GAL is like a job interview. You are applying for the job of custodial parent—first impressions matter. Courteous people make a positive impression on judges and GAL. This also includes non-verbal things like body language. Just like a job interview, first impressions are lasting impressions.
OUR Children – NEVER My Child:
When talking about the child:
ALWAYS say, “Our daughter/son.”
NEVER EVER say, “My son/daughter.”
This is a big one. Judges (and GAL’s) absolutely hate this. However, following this simple rule demonstrates that you acknowledge both parents and indicate a willingness to co-parent.
Cooperate with the GAL:
The GAL will probably have an intake form they will want you to complete. If the GAL asks you for documents or information, get the information to the GAL quickly. If the GAL suggests something, make it happen. If the GAL thinks there is a problem with a parent, make sure the GAL believes the problem is with the other parent and not you. Being cooperative and easy to work with will go a long way.
Demonstrate that you are willing to co-parent:
The GAL will be looking to see if one or both parents are willing to Co-Parent. Even if you seek sole custody, you should still do everything you can to demonstrate that you have tried to work with the other parent. If you are seeking Joint Custody, this probably makes perfect sense to you. However, if you seek sole custody, you may wonder why you would want to demonstrate you are willing to co-parent.
Mom may say the only reason we cannot co-parent is because of Dad. Dad will say that the only reason we cannot co-parent is because of Mom. No matter who is right, all that has happened here is the creation of evidence that co-parenting is not working.
If the GAL believes Joint Custody will not work, the recommendation will probably be that one parent is awarded custody. The parent who gets the nod will probably be the one who has put the most effort into co-parenting because the GAL will believe that parent is most likely to be fair, make decisions in the best interest of the child, and make the child available to the other parent.
Examples of how to help yourself:
You want to do visitation exchanges at 8:00 p.m. Mom wants to exchange at 6:00 p.m.
Mom wants to sign the kids up for ping pong, and you want to sign the kids up for soccer. Or whatever the issues are.
You talk about it and then figure it out. Neither of you may be happy with the result, but you figured it out. Whether the result is 8:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m., ping pong or soccer, or whatever else, that is not important. What is important is that you talked about it and worked it out. You have now created evidence you can work together and co-parent.
Pick your battles! If something is not a life-altering event that will significantly affect your future quality of life, do not make it a huge deal!
If the GAL thinks co-parenting is impossible, we want the GAL to believe you have tried, and the other parent refuses. That will set you up for the best possible result.
If You Are Unsure About Anything, Ask Me!
If you have a question about your meeting with the GAL or anything else about your case, ask me. Never hesitate to ask me questions.
The outcome of your case will depend largely upon the recommendations of the GAL. Whether the case is settled or goes to trial, the GAL will play an essential role in the outcome. Follow the tips above and you will create a situation where the GAL wants to help you and give yourself the best chance of success.
Copyright 2023 Pete D. Louden All Rights Reserved
Pete D. Louden is a family law attorney in Norman, Oklahoma. Since 1998 he has represented Oklahoma families in divorce, child custody, and child support matters with extensive experience in settlement negotiations, mediations, and complex divorce and custody trials.