The Role of Guardians ad Litem in Florida Family Law Cases
When a couple’s divorce makes the news, the focus is often on the positions or actions these individuals made that brought them to this point. It is less common to have the news story focus on the couple’s children and what their needs and desires may be. While numerous studies have explored the effect of divorce on children generally, the degree of personal impact, and how that may change as a divorce case progresses, is often absent. Florida law recognizes that the interests of children sometimes need a voice in the legal process, and permits the appointment of neutral representatives, called guardians ad litem (GAL), to serve as someone looking at the best interests of the child. A recent article in the Tallahassee Democrat reports that the Florida GAL program has exceeded its goal of training and deploying 10,000 volunteers to serve in this role. GALs provide an important service in family law and dependency cases.
When GALs Are Appointed
The law permits judges to appoint GALs to represent the best interests of a child in the following types of cases: divorce petitions; the creation, modification, or approval of parenting plan; and dependency petitions where allegations of abuse, neglect, or abandonment are sufficiently supported to satisfy the court. The role of a GAL is to serve primarily as an investigator and evaluator that advises the court about what is needed to best serve the interests of the child. The GAL is not an advocate or attorney, and thus cannot legally represent a child in court, but is permitted to attend judicial proceedings once appointed.
GALs are granted any power necessary to act in the best interests of the child, and the law specifically says a GAL may do any of the following in order to fulfill the purpose of this role:
- interview the child, witnesses, or any other person with relevant information to evaluate allegations made to the court that could affect the child;
- petition the court, through an attorney, to gain access to and copy medical records for the child, the child’s parents, or other individuals that live in the child’s household;
- ask the court to order examinations of the child, parents, or other interested parties by medical doctors and/or mental health professionals;
- help the court acquire impartial expert examinations; and
- most importantly, present written or oral recommendations to the court about what is necessary to serve the child’s best interests, as well as, the child’s wishes. A GAL’s report carries great weight with most judges and will often influence the final disposition issued in the case.
Since most GALs in Florida are volunteers, the qualifications necessary to serve in this role are not especially stringent. Basically, as long as the person is over 21 years old, has no criminal conviction for a felony or offense against another person, and completes the state’s GAL training program, he or she is qualified for appointment in a court case.
Finally, GALs are required to hold any information they receive or learn while performing their duties confidential, and may only disclose it in reports to the court or as the court directs.
Talk to a Family Law Attorney
Parents overwhelming always want what is best for their child, but the appointment of a GAL in any family law proceeding, especially dependency cases, is an event that should not be ignored. GALs add another layer of complexity to family law matters, and that is why it is best to work with an attorney to fully understand what this person brings to the legal process. The Fort Lauderdale law firm of Joyce A. Julian, P.A. can help guide you through the facets of a court case and lead you to the best possible outcome. Contact us to schedule a free consultation.