A Guardian ad Litem is an individual who represents the best interests of a party who is not able to do so on their own. A Guardian ad Litem can be a vital part of many legal matters, including family law matters involving minor children.
What is a Guardian ad Litem?
A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is an individual appointed by the court to represent the best interests of a child or incapacitated person involved in a legal matter.
The primary duty of a GAL is to represent the best interests of the person for whom she is appointed. A GAL is an officer of the court and is subject to certain ethical obligations, including avoiding conflicts of interest, maintaining objectivity, informing the individual whom she represents about their role in the case, maintaining parties' privacy, maintain documentation, informing the court of relevant information in a timely manner, and more.
A guardian ad litem will conduct an investigation that can involve interviewing all individuals who may have information relating to the matter, reviewing relevant documentation, observing the child or incapacitated person, and more. She will then present her findings to the court and make a recommendation as to the outcome that would be in the best interests of her client. Additionally, she will monitor compliance with existing court orders, as well as informing the court of any change of circumstances that may require a modification of the court's orders.
It is important to note that the wishes of an individual involved in a legal matter may be quite different from the best interests of a party involved in a legal matter. For example, a child in a custody or dependency proceeding may wish to remain in the household of an abusive parent or guardian. A GAL can play a pivotal role in these type of situations by conducting extensive investigations and interviewing caregivers, family members, teachers, case workers, healthcare professionals, and any other relevant individual to gain a complete picture of what is in the best interests of the child. She will then report her findings to the court so that a full and informed decision may be made concerning the placement of the child.
Who may serve as a Guardian ad Litem in Washington?
Guardian ad litems in Washington generally need to meet minimum requirements, including educational and training requirements. The county must retain a registry of qualified guardian ad litems, with a statement that includes:
- Level of formal education;
- Related training;
- Years of experience;
- Number of appointments as a GAL;
- Criminal history;
- Evidence of knowledge, training, and experience with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and other areas relevant to the needs of minors and incapacitated persons.
GALs may be social workers, attorneys, mental health professionals, or otherwise qualified individuals.
Certain matters involving individuals who are members of a federally recognized tribe will not fall under the jurisdiction of Washington state court. In these cases, the matter will be referred to a tribal court. Tribal courts maintain their own rules of procedure. A GAL appointed to represent the best interests of an individual in tribal courts must follow the applicable laws of the particular tribe.
When are the services of a Guardian ad Litem necessary?
The services of a GAL are critical in a variety of legal matters where one party may not be able to adequately represent his or her best interests to the court. This can include guardianship and estate planning actions involving an incapacitated individual. Additionally, there are many family law matters in which the services of a GAL can be critical.
Under RCW 26.12.175, the court may appoint a GAL to represent the interests of a minor or dependent child when the court believes it is necessary to protect the best interests of the child. The following are examples of legal matters in which the services of a guardian ad litem can be beneficial. It is in no way meant to be an exhaustive list of all legal matters for which the services of a guardian ad litem may be appropriate.
A guardian ad litem may provide services during a divorce proceeding. While the parents and/or their attorneys will be vigorously advocating for their best interests, a GAL will advocate for an outcome that serves the best interests of any minor children who may be affected by the divorce proceeding.
Custody Hearings and Modifications
A guardian ad litem may play a vital role in determining an optimal custody situation for a minor child. This can include reporting to the court when parents and/or guardians are seeking to allocate matters such as legal custody and visitation time. This can also include reporting to the court when parties seek to modify plans involving these matters.
When the government has reason to believe that a minor child has been abandoned by a parent/guardian, has been abused or neglected by a parent/guardian, or does not have a parent or guardian capable of providing adequate care, it may initiate a dependency action. A dependency action seeks to determine whether it is safe for the child to remain in the home or whether the child should be placed in out-of-home care. There are multiple steps involved in a dependency action, and a GAL can bring valuable insight to the court regarding how the home environment is affecting the child.
Registered Guardian ad Litem Serving Snohomish and King Counties, Muckleshoot Tribal Court
I am an experienced family law attorney, with years of experience representing individuals in matters involving divorce, spousal support, child support, and parenting plans. This has given me a nuanced understanding of how these legal matters can affect the well-being of a child and why it is so critical that the best interest of the child be adequately represented. I am a registered guardian ad litem in Snohomish and King counties, as well as the Muckleshoot Tribal Court.