In family law cases, such as divorces that include children, cases based on child custody modifications, and child custody cases that are outside of marriage and divorce, each parent generally wants what is best for their children.
Unfortunately, parents don’t always see eye to eye, and the children can have their own preferences, opinions, and ideas. This is where the services of a guardian ad litem – or GAL – come into play.
If you have a family law case in which your children’s best interests hang in the balance, don’t wait to reach out for the skilled legal guidance of an experienced Round Rock family law attorney.
What Is a Guardian ad Litem?
A guardian ad litem is a professional who advocates for the children's best interests during the family law process and who is appointed by the court. Their sole objective and responsibility is to determine and represent these best interests.
You probably already know what a guardian is, but you might be asking what ad litem means. In Latin, ad litem translates to “for the suit.” In other words, the Texas court assigns a guardian ad litem to serve as a guardian of the child’s best interests while the suit – or case – is pending.
What Determines a Child’s Best Interests in Texas
While parents generally know what’s best for their children and do what they can to ensure that their best interests are supported, this can be difficult to accomplish in the midst of a heated court battle for custody.
For example, in situations in which both parents are fighting for the role of primary custodial parent, the court will need to consider each child’s best interests carefully, and this can involve appointing a guardian ad litem.
Courts use all of the following best interest factors to make child custody determinations in Texas:
Each child’s physical, educational, and emotional needs, including any special needs they may have
Each parent’s ability to address each of these needs
Each parent’s preferences about the child custody arrangements
Each child’s preferences regarding child custody – if they are found to be mature enough to weigh in on the matter
The level of involvement each parent has had in raising the children to date
Each parent’s level of commitment to fostering an ongoing relationship between the children and the other parent
Each parent’s level of commitment to effective co-parenting
Each parent’s overall physical and mental health
Whether there are any concerns related to domestic violence, child abuse, or neglect
The advisability of maintaining the status quo, which includes the children’s current living situation, school or daycare, and community
Any other factors that the court considers important, including the guardian ad litem’s opinion regarding the children’s best interests
Determining children’s best interests is a challenging process that Texas courts take seriously. Work closely with a seasoned Round Rock family law attorney who is knowledgeable about how the court will likely rule in family law cases like yours.
Who Can Serve as a Guardian ad Litem?
There are specific requirements regarding who can serve as a Texas guardian ad litem. All of the following people qualify for the role:
The guardian ad litem can be a court-appointed volunteer advocate from a charitable organization.
The guardian ad litem can be a professional with a relevant license – other than that of an attorney – whose training coincides with determining children’s best interests.
The guardian ad litem can be an adult whom the court determines has the training, expertise, and competence to ascertain and represent the children’s best interests.
The guardian ad litem can be a Texas attorney ad litem who serves in the dual role of attorney and guardian ad litem.
Officers of the Court
Guardian ad litems are designated officers of the court, which means they are required to uphold the Texas Constitution and perform appropriately in this capacity. This responsibility includes respecting the parties involved and the presiding judge. They are also required to remain impartial in the execution of their duty to support the children they represent.
GALs are expected to work independently of both parties, which includes you and your children’s other parent. Your child’s GAL will file a report with the court that is based on the facts obtained and includes their recommendations about your case.
The judge will carefully consider the testimony heard in your case, the facts of your case, as well as the guardian ad litem’s report before handing down a decision. A skilled Round Rock family law attorney will help you prepare your strongest possible case to present before judge.
The Guardian ad Litem’s Job outside the Courtroom
Outside of the courtroom, the guardian ad litem is responsible for acting as the court’s eyes and ears in relation to the involved child. The GAL’s report helps the judge better understand the children’s complete circumstances, which is necessary to make well-informed decisions that support their best interests.
Much of a guardian ad litem’s work involves conducting interviews with both parents, the children they represent, and anyone else who may provide additional insight regarding what’s best for the children. Interviewees can include all the following people:
Grandparents and other family members
The GAL focuses on how the custody case got to the point that it’s being contested in court – from the perspective of both parents. In order to better understand this clash, the GAL will interview both of you regarding matters such as the following:
Your parenting style
Your children’s daily routines
Your disciplinary style – as contrasted by your ex’s
Your take on what your children’s other parent will have to say about you as a parent
In order to back up your claims on these matters, you will want to provide the GAL with a list of people who have personal knowledge about your parenting abilities and involvement with your children to interview.
The bottom line is coming to a conclusion about your parenting abilities in relation to those of your child’s other parent. Their requirement of impartiality means that guardian ad litems must accurately assess both parents from a neutral perspective, which can be difficult to achieve.
The fact is that complete impartiality is not always possible. If you believe the GAL in your case demonstrates bias against you, you should not hesitate to bring the matter up with your attorney – who will address your concerns with the court immediately. There is only a short window in which you can disqualify a GAL’s assessment, which makes speaking up quickly key.
Proving bias, of course, is likely to be challenging, but the following kinds of evidence can be helpful in presenting your concerns:
Texts, emails, or another form of correspondence that appear to favor your ex over you
A history of supporting one sex over the other
Past disciplinary actions against the GAL taken by another court
The GAL’s failure to get back to you or your attorney
What Not to Say to a Guardian ad Litem
If there is a guardian ad litem involved in your child custody case, your overall goal should be open, honest, cooperative, and polite communication with them. However, you should consider every conversation you have with the GAL to be part of their investigation, which means you should always keep your wits about you.
Ultimately, there are things you should never say to a guardian ad litem. You can discuss your strategy for communicating with the GAL with your seasoned Round Rock family law attorney.
“I refuse to answer that.”
When it comes to the best interests of your children, very few topics are considered irrelevant or off-limits for the GAL. The GAL can ask questions about all of the following topics:
Your parenting style
The environment in your home
The other adults who you share your life with and who are, therefore, around your children
Ultimately, it’s the GAL’s job to dig into personal matters like those listed above in their efforts to determine the best custody arrangements for your children. Letting the guardian ad litem know that the answer is none of their business isn’t going to do you any favors.
“My ex is the worst parent around.”
Avoiding disparaging remarks about your ex is a much better look than going for their jugular at every turn. The court is looking for parents who are committed to bolstering their children’s relationships with their other parent, and your openly negative attitude may be considered the source of the problem.
If the GAL, however, asks you a direct question about your ex and your honest answer is not flattering, that is a different matter. Volunteering negative information, on the other hand, can backfire.
In the end, your children are you and your ex’s kids, and using the phrase my kids sends a message that you’re not interested in doing what you can to support successful co-parenting.
The language you use says a lot about you, and saying “my kids” sounds bratty at best. There is no denying that child custody concerns are some of the most stressful out there and that you may need to let off a little steam once in a while, but doing so when you are talking to the guardian ad litem is ill-advised.
“I’m not answering that without my attorney present.”
If you have an issue with the guardian ad litem, it’s important to take the matter up with your attorney – not with the GAL. They have the right to interview you without your attorney present because they’re trying to make an unbiased assessment – not an assessment based on your reactions when coached by your attorney.
Saying you won’t answer a question without your attorney present won’t accomplish anything other than raising red flags.
“I don’t need anger management classes!”
Ultimately, it’s a bad idea to shout, raise your voice, or speak in an overly excited manner to the involved guardian ad litem. They have a job to do, and it’s your responsibility to help them accomplish it. Further, your cooperation reinforces your case – that you are well-prepared and capable of being a highly involved parent.
Raising your voice in response to the suggestion of anger management classes makes you look like a person who has a lot of anger and who doesn’t like to be called out on it, which is not what you’re going for. If you believe the GAL’s assessment regarding your anger management concerns is erroneous, discuss the matter with your attorney.
“I’m not taking a drug test!”
If your ex accuses you of having drug issues, the GAL will need to get to the bottom of the matter, and having you take a drug test may be the most direct path forward. If you’re concerned that you’ll fail the test, discuss your best options with your attorney prior to taking it.
The most important point to make here is that remaining calm and courteous is always to your advantage.
“Don’t my rights matter?”
By the time your child custody matter goes to court, the judge’s focus is on the best interests of your children – within the context of your parental rights. In other words, your rights come second. The GAL’s sole focus is your child’s best interests, which makes fussing about your own rights a bad approach.
Turn to an Experienced Austin Family Lawyer for the Help You Need Today
Brett Pritchard is a trusted family lawyer at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Austin. Mr. Pritchard’s practice focuses on fiercely protecting the parental rights of clients like you. If your case involves a GAL, it can be stressful, but with the skilled guidance of an Austin family lawyer in your corner, you’ll have the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’re in good hands.