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Understanding the Role of Court-Appointed Representatives for Your Child

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Any dispute involving a timesharing or care is almost certain to leave a lasting negative impact on the child’s development. Even though these matters directly affect the child’s well being, people rarely consider how an advocate for the child’s interests may be a good idea. While parents want what is best for their children, they may have a competing interest in retaliating against the other parent that can cloud their decisions. The use of representative for a child in the courtroom setting is not particularly well-known, but judges have the ability, and in some cases are required, to appoint a neutral third party, called a guardian ad litem (GAL), to represent a child’s interests in cases involving divorce, parenting plans or dependency actions. GALs can play a crucial role in resolving child-related issues, and a discussion of the GAL’s role in the family court system will follow below.

Appointment

In cases of divorce or those involving the creation or enforcement of parenting plans, a court has discretion to appoint a GAL to represent the child’s interests. This person is most often used in cases with a high degree of conflict, and acts as a friend to, or an evaluator or an investigator for, the child, but is not permitted to represent the child as an advocate or attorney. Once appointed, the GAL is entitled to attend all court proceedings related to the child, and serves in this capacity until released by the court. In contrast, GALs must be appointed in dependency actions, which are cases related to allegations of child abuse, neglect or abandonment. GALs in dependency cases typically play a larger role in the judge’s final decision. Further, the parents are only required to pay for the GAL’s services if financially able because the appointment is mandatory. Parents in divorce and parenting plan cases are usually expected to pay this cost since the GAL appointment is discretionary. GALs are always immune from criminal and civil liability for their actions or decisions. Thus, even if a parent is unhappy with a GAL, at most, they can ask the court for a new appointment, but cannot initiate legal action.

Powers and Duties

As may be apparent following the discussion above, the authority extended to a GAL is dependent upon the type of case that is pending. Because dependency actions involve such serious allegations and potential consequences (up to the termination of parental rights), GALs are given fairly broad access to information and persons. GALs for divorce and parenting plan cases, on the other hand, must go through additional steps to gain the same level of access. Specifically, upon appointment, GALs in dependency cases have the authority to access any record related to the child’s best interest, including those considered confidential, such as:

  • medical records;
  • mental health records;
  • child care documents;
  • school records;
  • police reports;
  • documents filed with the court; and
  • financial records.

GALs in divorce and parenting plan cases must petition the court for authorization to access these types of records. GALs are generally permitted to interview the child, family members, witnesses and anyone else with information on the child’s welfare. All GALs are expected to furnish written and oral reports on the child’s wellbeing and the findings of their investigations to the court. In addition, a written report must be submitted to both parties at least 20 days before presenting it to the court, and this report often includes recommendations for the child’s short- and long-term care as well as the child’s wishes. Courts take these reports seriously, so the recommendations made do matter.

Consult a Family Law Attorney

If you are fighting for timesharing of your child, you need an attorney on your side fighting for your rights. Family law attorney Joyce A. Julian, P.A. knows how emotional and sensitive these issues are and will work to get you the best possible result. If you live in the Fort Lauderdale area, contact the office today for a free consultation.

Resources:

leg.state.fl.us/STATUTES/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=0000-0099/0061/Sections/0061.401.html

leg.state.fl.us/STATUTES/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=0000-0099/0039/Sections/0039.822.html

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