For more than two decades, Memphis family attorney Shannon Jones has worked to protect the rights of children and help parents understand and resolve complicated custody issues. One particularly challenging and contentious issue is the appointment of a guardian ad litem (or GAL).
Below, we’ll discuss some common questions about guardian ad litem, including what it is, how the court will appoint a GAL, and what your rights as a parent are in Tennessee.
What is a Guardian Ad Litem?
In a contested custody proceeding, or if there is alleged child abuse or neglect, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem to act as a representative for minor children. It is also possible for one or both of the child’s parents to request the appointment of a GAL.
A guardian ad litem will usually be a licensed attorney but could be a social worker or a mental health professional. The GAL does not represent the interest of either parent and is instead charged with representing the best interests of the children. The GAL will advocate for minor children, just as any attorney would advocate for a client who retains them. This means that they will perform the following duties:
Prior to the Hearing: Conduct interviews with all individuals who have contact with the child
During the Hearing: Examine, cross-examine, subpoena witnesses, and offer testimony
The GAL will evaluate the child’s comfort level with each parent and their preferences of where they would like to reside. They will then recommend to the court how custody should be divided, where the child should reside, and visitation location and frequency.
When are Guardian Ad Litem Appointments Made?
Tennessee law makes it clear that the court should not make these appointments “routinely” and the appointment of a GAL should be used sparingly in custody proceedings. It is assumed in most cases that the parents will protect the child’s best interests.
So, when would the court consider it necessary to appoint a guardian ad litem? According to Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-4-132, a GAL might need to be appointed if:
The child has specific circumstances or needs that must be met
If the child requests representation
If there is any manipulation or inappropriate influence displayed by an adult on the child
If the child might need to be called as a witness, and the court wishes to minimize the impact of the litigation process on them
If the relationship between the parents is particularly hostile and warrants the protection of the child
If custody, visitation, access, or parenting time is threatened in any way, particularly if the child is at risk of abduction
If a geographic relocation threatens to remove the child from a parent, sibling, or another person the child is close to
If there are concerns for the safety of the child during visitation, custody, or parenting time
If the child has special mental, physical, or educational needs
If there is a dispute over the paternity of the child
Tennessee law instructs the court to appoint a person with the proper knowledge, training, skill, experience, and qualifications to serve as the child’s guardian ad litem.
How Long Does a Guardian Ad Litem Appointment Last?
The guardian ad litem will serve as long as the court or appointment order lasts. If the duration is not specified in any order, it will automatically be terminated when the custody or modification proceedings are finalized.
Do I Need to Work With an Appointed Guardian Ad Litem?
The appointment of a guardian ad litem can be a challenging thing for a parent to accept. It is natural to be hesitant or resistant to letting someone’s judgment replace your own when it comes to matters involving your children, but it is crucial that you respect the court’s appointment.
The GAL has the power to investigate matters that are very personal and that you might find intrusive including medical and education records of the child, parents, and others involved in the case. Because they are appointed by the court, you should make sure to be as cooperative as possible with their interviews and investigation, for the sake of your child or children.
What Types of Questions Will a Guardian Ad Litem Ask?
An experienced guardian ad litem will have their own way of approaching a case. In general, you should be prepared to discuss the following topics:
Your relationship with your co-parent
What brought you to the point of contested custody litigation
The daily routines of the child or children
Your personal parenting style
Other people (friends, family members, etc.) who should be interviewed and who could emphasize your strengths as a parent
If you keep in mind that this process is about the best interests of the child, it will ultimately be easier for you to assist the GAL in gathering the information they need to make a recommendation to the court. In the end, you want what is best for your children, and you can demonstrate that by helping the GAL make the most informed decision in this case.
Contact an Experienced Memphis Family Attorney
No one says that having a guardian ad litem appointed in a contested custody dispute is going to be comfortable or easy on either parent. Having a stranger evaluate your parenting in a short amount of time and making a recommendation that the court will seriously consider can be stressful and frightening at times. The court’s ability to appoint a GAL is a tool that is used to ensure the welfare of the child, and while it isn’t a perfect system, it is an effective one. You can help yourself by staying positive and letting the evidence of your parenting speak for itself.
Attorney Shannon A. Jones has helped families in Memphis for more than 20 years, and he is ready to answer your questions and advocate for you if you have questions about child custody, custody litigation, guardian ad litem, and any other family legal matters. Call him at (901) 390-9041 or reach out online to schedule a confidential appointment today.