Guardian Ad Litem

Q: How Does the Guardian Ad Litem Obtain the Information Needed to Make Recommendations to the Court?

The GAL must conduct a thorough investigation of all of the allegations each party has made and determine their validity and the impact of the allegations on the children.   A GAL is in many ways “the eyes and ears” of the court.  The GAL must review all documents available concerning the parents and the child which can have an impact on custody.  It is routine for the GAL to have each party sign a release to obtain all medical files.  This includes psychological files.

It is very common for a GAL to provide a questionnaire to each party at the beginning of their involvement.  Complete each item as best as you can and then have your attorney review it before sending to the GAL.

Guardian Ad Litem

What Information Does The Guardian Ad Litem Need?

Q: What does the GAL want to know about me and my children?

Generally, the GAL’s questionnaire will ask routine questions about your education and work history.  The GAL will want to know if you have ever been arrested, convicted of a crime, and if you have had any problems with alcohol or drugs. The GAL will also want to know about your marriage and how and when the relationship soured. 

          The GAL will want to know if any of your children have special needs.  They will  usually ask  how you disciplined the children prior to the separation. The GAL will want to know how your children perform in school and extra-curricular activities.  The GAL will inquire how the childcare responsibilities were handled prior to the separation and what is the current division of childcare responsibilities. 

When responding to each question it is most important to be truthful.  Far better for you (or your attorney) to be forthright about any unpleasant detail, than for the GAL to hear about it from your former partner or discover it themselves.  Keep in mind, that there are very few individuals that have lead unflawed lives – even the Judge and your GAL!

Guardian Ad Litem

How is the Guardian Ad Litem Paid?

Q:      The judge ordered my spouse and I deposit $1000 into the court’s registry.  The Judge stated in his Order that at the end of the case, she would decide if either of us should receive payment from the other.  I do not think it is “fair” that I should have to pay for a Guardian that I do not feel is needed.

          If both parties are unable to pay the GAL’s fees, the Court may appoint a GAL who has agreed to work on the case as a volunteer or at a reduced rate. Most of the time, GAL’s charge on an hourly basis and both sides will be required to pay an initial retainer.  The Order for the GAL will specify how the GAL’s fees will be handled.  It is very common for the Judge at the end of the case, to decide that one party will pay more than the other of the GAL’s total fees.  If one party earns substantially more money than the other, the Judge will have the higher earning party contribute more to the GAL’s services than the other.  It is also possible, that if one side does not cooperate with the GAL and be forthcoming with information, the Court can “punish” that party and require that the uncooperative party pay more than the cooperative party.  Many judges will state in their initial Order appointing the GAL specific terms concerning the payments to the GAL.  A typical provision reads: “In the event that there is a hearing or mediation in this case, and the GAL is called as a witness by either party or requested to appear, all of the GAL’s fee due at that time will be paid in full before the GAL is required to attend.” Another common provision in the judge’s initial order is: “In the event a written report is necessary, all fees due at that time, and a deposit of the full retainer shall be paid in full prior to the GAL writing the report.”

Guardian Ad Litem

How is a Guardian Ad Litem Selected?

Q: I am getting a divorce. My husband is asking for primary custody, even though he has not been the “on the ground” parent. My husband’s lawyer requested  the judge to appoint a GAL.  The judge told both attorneys to suggest individuals they wanted to be the Guardian Ad Litem in my case and he would choose from those names.  The judge did not select the Guardian my lawyer requested.  The Guardian the judge selected is a member of the same church as my husband.  I am afraid that the Guardian will recommend that my husband have primary custody.  This is not fair.  What should I do?

          It is understandable that you are concerned that the Guardian could be more receptive to your husband than he/she is toward you.  However, experienced Guardians will not be influenced by facts that are not connected to the case.  In smaller cities and towns, it is very probable that Guardians know the parties in their cases.  Judges may prefer one Guardian over another for many legitimate reasons.  Some of the reasons could be that one Guardian may have a lower hourly rate or that the judge is more familiar with certain Guardians and wants to use someone he/she has experience working with. You need to put your feelings aside and do your best to develop a “connection” with the chosen Guardian.  Complaining about fairness will not accomplish anything productive.

Guardian Ad Litem

Q:      I do not understand why the Judge appointed a Guardian Ad Litem when I have always done everything for the children, i.e., take them to school, help them with their homework, take them to their pediatrician, dentist, etc.

         Many judges will routinely appoint a GAL when both sides are seeking custody.  If one party requests a GAL and the other is opposed, the judge will usually allow both sides to state their position, prior to making a decision.  If there are any allegations of abuse or neglect, it is more likely that the judge will appoint a GAL.

Guardian Ad Litem

Q: What legal authority does the court give a Guardian Ad Litem in a Family Law Case?

          When the Guardian Ad Litem is appointed it is very important to read the order appointing the GAL.  Sometimes the judge will give special powers to the GAL, such as acting as a mediator for the parties.  It is the GAL’s responsibility to represent the best interest of the child.  The GAL is required to investigate claims made by the parties and witnesses; interview parties and all individuals with knowledge concerning the child and/or the parents and advise the court as to the custody and parenting plan which would be in the child’s best interest.

          Depending on the particular case, the GAL can make custody recommendations to the court; and testify at trial as an “expert” or fact witness as to the best interest of the child; and/or participate at the custody trial as a third lawyer (representing the best interest of the child) and is permitted to subpoena and cross examine witnesses.  The GAL has the ability to request that the court order the parties and their child to have psychological examinations.

GUARDIAN AD LITEM

What is a Guardian Ad Litem?

Q: I just filed for divorce and I have always been the stay at home parent.  My spouse suddenly wants to have the children half the time.  We just had a temporary hearing and the judge appointed a Guardian Ad Litem (or GAL).   The Judge did not explain what a Guardian Ad Litem is, what they will do in my case or why one is needed?

          A Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) is an individual (most often an attorney – but does not have to be) appointed by the court to represent the child/children’s best interest in a custody action.  The court can also appoint a GAL for an adult who is alleged to be incompetent to make their own decisions. 

          Most jurisdictions will require that a GAL complete a specialized training program.  The GAL is basically the “eyes and ears” of the court.  The GAL will conduct an investigation and will make recommendations to the court.  The court is not required to follow the recommendations of the GAL, but if the GAL is very experienced, it is likely that the court will put a lot of weight on the recommendations.

Dating During Divorce

DATING DURING DIVORCE

            One of the most frequent questions I hear during my initial meeting with a client is: When can I starting dating?  To a client who has been suffering in a marriage with limited or no sexual relationship, it is not unusual for the client to believe that when they have made the decision to end their marriage and told an attorney that the marriage is “over,” they should be free to “move on” with their life, i.e. start looking for a new partner. My advice is “not so fast.” 

            It is common for couples to spend a lot of time and money planning a wedding.  Applying for a marriage license and participating in some type of ceremony also takes time.  Unless you and your spouse have agreed on every single issue involved in the dissolution of your marriage, you are not going to be quickly divorced.  It will take a certain amount of time to  reach an agreement with or without attorneys or with mediators and/or arbitrators.  If you are unable to resolve any disagreements be prepared for a lengthy process. Dating during the divorce can vastly complicate the process and impact the time for ending the marriage. 

Q: After I move out of the marital bedroom, am I free to date other people?

            It is important to understand that you are married under the law until you have an official document stating that you and your spouse are no longer husband and wife.  In most states that document is known as a “Final Judgement of Divorce.”  In many states sexual relations with any person other than your spouse is adultery and a crime.  Fortunately, district attorneys have more significant criminal cases to prosecute so there is rarely a prosecution, but it is still a crime.

Q: If I start a new relationship while my divorce is pending, can that affect the settlement?

       Absolutely.  It is possible that your new relationship can affect the outcome of custody or visitation, as well as the amount that you pay or receive as child support and/or alimony.  It can also dramatically affect your ability to negotiate a property settlement with your spouse.

Q:  My spouse is very angry that I want a divorce.  My lawyer told me that my spouse can’t prevent me from getting a divorce.  So, what difference does it make if my spouse is angry that I am in a new relationship?

         Your lawyer is correct to the extent that your spouse cannot stop the divorce.  However, an angry spouse can enormously complicate the divorce, and lengthen the time it takes for the divorce to be finalized.  As a result it is very likely that your lawyer will have to devote more billable time to your divorce, which will result in your paying  larger legal fees.  It is to your advantage to maintain a “cordial” relationship with your “soon to be” ex-spouse.  This translates into taking “the high road” when responding to emails, and when you are forced to interact with your  spouse.  To the extent that you can “suggest” to your family members to refrain from negative comments about your spouse, do it.  There is nothing to be gained by provoking anger in your spouse.

Q:  I am in a new relationship, and my divorce is “close” to being final.  Can I introduce my children to my new love?

      There is no such animal as “almost divorced.”  You are married until you have a signed divorce decree in your hand. In some states, it is a crime to have sexual relations with anyone other than your spouse.  It is impossible for me to imagine a situation where it would benefit your children to meet your new love while you are still legally married.  Your children’s parent is still your spouse.  The younger your children are the more likely that they will be confused about your new relationship.  If your children are older, it is possible that they will be angry at you for having a new relationship.  If your case is not resolved amicably, the court may be deciding custody, child support, spousal support, division of assets and debts. The judge may have concerns about your judgement.  Keep in mind that judges in family law matters have an enormous amount of discretion and can penalize your actions.

Q:  My spouse filed for divorce and I am very depressed.  My friends tell me that I need to start dating and having sex.

       Going through a divorce is one of the most stressful experiences in one’s life time.  It is stressful whether you are the party that filed for the divorce or if you are on the receiving side.  It is normal to be sad.  Although your friends are trying to help you “move on,” dating has its own set of stressors.  There are many qualified professionals who can assist  you to develop coping strategies so you can get to a better place.  I recommend that my  clients   make  an appointment with a therapist experienced in working with individuals going through divorce.  If you meet with a  therapist, and you do not feel “connected,” ask for some additional recommendations.  Your attorney should have therapists they have identified as being particularly helpful working with individuals going through divorce. I have witnessed many clients go from “caterpillars to butterflies” during the divorce process.

How to Be a Better Long Distance Parent – Part 2

Continuing our discussion  of how to be a better long distance parent, the following are some additional questions I commonly hear when a long distance parenting relationship is imminent.

Q:  My child is 4 years old, what suggestions do you have for things to do to help improve my long distance relationship with my child?  Because of the expense I can only visit her about three times a year?

Some preschool children are able to speak clearly and love to talk on the phone.  But there are other completely normal children who do not feel comfortable on the phone.  Skype or Face-time is generally easier for children.  Of course, the children will need an adult nearby to set up the session.  If it is possible, let the children show you some of their favorite toys and friends.  Ideally, it would be great to have a set time to talk and skype with your children.  The most important piece of advice is to be flexible.  If during your “regular” skype time, your child has a play date, try asking if it would be possible to have your child and his friend skype with you.  Keep the session short and be up-beat.  Remember to thank your ex for arranging the session.

Continue to send video clips, letters and emails as often as possible.  Try to send something at least five days a week.  Remember this is your opportunity to connect with your children.  When you speak with your child, talk about the activities you did together, i.e. going to the zoo, visiting relatives, etc.  When you travel to see your children take a lot of pictures and videos, so that you can share the memories again and again with your children.

For children that like to do puzzles, send puzzles that you have started for your children to complete.  They can show them to you on Skype or Face-time.  Children love to receive snail mail with little “surprises”, stickers, baseball cards, pictures of you and your family and pets.

Q:  I have twin girls that are 8 years old.  I only get to see them twice a year.  I lived with their Father until they were 7.  I miss them very much.  What can I do to improve my relationship in between “live” visits?

It is very difficult for you and your girls to be so far apart.  Hopefully, since you lived with them in the same household until a year ago, you have a lot to build on.  It is extremely important that you call and email your children’s teachers so that you receive the same reports on the children’s progress as their Father.  If one of the girls needs extra help in a school subject, make sure that you are aware of tests that are coming up.  Try to schedule a special Skype session to tutor your child.  Use technology such as www.gotomeeting.com to work together.  When you visit, if it is possible, stay at a hotel with a kitchenette so that you are able to prepare meals together.  If they are mature and the distance is not too great, they should be able to fly to see you soon. Most airlines allow unaccompanied minors to fly after age 12, for an extra fee.

Q:  I have a teenage daughter who is 15.  Her mother and I had a brief relationship, but I have always paid child support.  I see my daughter less than three times a year.  I would like to get closer to her, but I do not know how to start.

 It is a challenge to get closer to teenager children – even when they live in the same household!  As parents we want our children to develop their individual interests and make friends.  It is normal for teenagers to want to spend more time with their friends than either parent.  Try not to take it personally.  At some point in your daughter’s life, she will want to be closer.  Until that point, stay very involved with her schoolwork and athletic activities.  If it is possible, try to attend a few of her athletic games or practices.  If you are financially able to take her on  special trips from time to time, that would be great. If a trip is out of your budget, how about tickets to a local concert or an athletic event.  Girls (of all ages)  particularly love to receive little gifts, such as teddy bears. Gift certificates for restaurants or even coupons for food discounts are thoughtful.

Try to have some kind of contact with your daughter at least twice a week.  It can be as simple as an email with a video, a silly card or a little gift, i.e. earrings.  The important message is to keep the dialogue open.

How to Be a Better Long Distance Parent – Part 1

In my practice, I often see couples who divorce and then one parent moves to another city or state. Obviously, that makes parenting a challenge, particularly with younger children. It’s not an ideal situation, but if parents make an effort, and use sensitivity, such parenting plans can work.

In general, when one parent relocates (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) the “left behind” parent is forced to be the long-distance parent. Your relationship with your children becomes much more formal.  This is particularly true when it is necessary to fly to visit your children. Statistically, children often lose contact with the long distance parent’s extended family, which for children is another significant loss.

Below are some questions I commonly hear when a long-distance parenting relationship is imminent.

Q: My ex “picked up” and moved without discussing it with me.  I am very angry.  What should I do?

It is important to remember (even if you have to write it on a sticky note and put it on your mirror) that you are the adult.  No matter how angry you are with your child’s parent, you need to give your children unconditional love.  Your child did not initiate the move.  If you are having trouble dealing with your anger toward your ex – get therapy.  It will not only make your relationship better with your children, it will help your children adjust better to their new home.

Q:  How can I work together with my ex to help the children adjust to the move and ensure that the relationship with my child’s non-custodial parent continues?

Children will adjust to the move when both parents work together and are committed to the notion that the relationship between the children and the long-distance parent continues.  Unfortunately, in an acrimonious divorce it is hard to focus on the child and commit to fostering the relationship your children have with your ex.  If you are unable to talk to each other, write an email or a letter.  If you are the custodial parent, make sure that you are writing to your ex at least weekly and giving them information about your children.  Also, make the process easier – suggest visiting times and recommend where to stay, and possible activities during the visit. 

Q: What are some suggestions for helping long distance parents with babies up to about 2 ½  years old?

Here are some things you can send your child to help them remember you:

  • Cards:  (either e-cards or snail mail) cards at holidays and special occasions.  Snail mail is better, if possible. 

Video clips of you singing their favorite songs and stories, using their names and special attributes

  • Send colorful, fun stickers, paper cut-outs.
  • Send a lot of photos of you, your family and friends.

Q: I am the relocating parent, and I want to encourage our children to have a good relationship with my ex, but my ex is very angry at me for moving and remarrying.  What can I do?

Sometimes, there is nothing that you can do to please your ex.  However, make sure that you are never badmouthing your ex, even when you may be furious at something they did.  This includes talking to your friends and complaining when your children are within hearing distance.  Save your complaints for a time when your children are not around.

Be available when your ex wants to speak with your children.  Of course, if your ex is calling at inconvenient times, it would be best to give him “windows of opportunity” for calling.  Work with your ex around his schedule. 

Consider using an on-line program like “Our Family Wizard” (www.ourfamilywizard)  to share information about the children. It is not advisable to send your ex a request for his/her share of a doctor visit, if you have not communicated with your ex the reason for the visit and the follow-up.

It is important for your children to have pictures of your ex in their room.  They see you all the time! 

When your ex is visiting your children or they will be visiting him/her make sure that the kids are prepared for the visit with appropriate clothes.  If they have a homework project resist the urge to “save it” for their visit.

When your ex leaves or the children return home from a visit, be prepared for them to have some “down-time” for the transition.