The Wisconsin Family Law Guardian Ad Litem
In a Wisconsin divorce, when child placement and custody are contested, and parents cannot reach an agreement on their own, the court must appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) to the case. The court can also appoint a GAL to assist anytime it believes there is reason to be concerned for a child’s well-being. This individual will be responsible for looking into the child’s situation, and will report his or her recommendations to the court. While the GAL’s recommendations are not always adopted by the judge, the GAL’s presence and opinion can be pivotal to case outcomes. Therefore, it’s essential to understand their role and know what to expect when a GAL is appointed to your Wisconsin family law matter.
When is a GAL appointed?
Wisconsin Law provides for the appointment of a GAL under certain circumstances, such as when mediation is unsuccessful or waived during a divorce action or a relocation case. However, the family court judge has the discretion to appoint a GAL anytime it believes a child’s welfare may be at risk. Additionally, GALs are appointed when children are removed from their parent’s care during child protective services cases. The parties’ attorneys can sometimes agree on which GAL to use in a case, but generally the judge makes that decision and appointment without them.
What are the GALs’ Qualifications?
The GAL is a licensed Wisconsin attorney who has completed a mandatory training course and maintains a specific number of educational hours. However, local courts can impose their own rules and hold the GALS who practice before them to higher standards. For instance, in a recent editorial, Brown County Circuit Judge Marc Hammer explained that the GALs working in his court attend additional domestic violence training and are scrutinized by the circuit court before they are allowed appointments. Judge Hammer stated that his county’s courts “consider each attorney’s skill, experience, and practice area before they are assigned GAL cases.” He went on to explain that, in the rare case, when a GAL has not performed his or her duties or overbilled for their work, “they receive no further guardian ad litem appointments.”
The GAL’s Duties During the Case
The GAL is always responsible for advocating for the child's best interests. Although the GAL can consider what a child wants, he or she does not have to act in accordance with the child's preferences or instruction. During the case, the GAL can meet with you, the other parent, the child, and other people who are important in the child’s life. The GAL is charged with finding out about the child, their family, and life circumstances and providing recommendations to the court.
As part of developing these recommendations, the GAL must consider sixteen factors in custody and placement determinations such as:
- The parents' and child's wishes;
- The interaction and interrelationship of the child with the parents; siblings, and others in their lives;
- How much time each parent has spent with their child in the past;
- The parent's respective support of one another's relationship with the child;
- Any history of abuse or neglect;
- The parent's ability to provide stability;
- Whether either party has had a significant problem with alcohol or drug abuse;
- Professional reports;
- And other evidence.
When an attorney is serving as a GAL on a routine basis before a particular judge, he or she can develop a positive reputation and become someone that the court trusts. This GAL’s opinions may carry a lot of weight when the judge is making determinations in the case. The GAL is paid by the County in which the case is pending, if the parties cannot pay themselves, but in most counties the judge orders the parties to share the cost of the GAL’s involvement, which can be a reduced hourly rate or as much as the regular cost of a seasoned attorney. If you don’t like the GAL, you may not be able to do anything about it, because in most cases the court will not remove the GAL from a case unless the GAL himself/herself asks to be removed.
At First Look Family Law, attorney and mediator Karyn Youso has extensive family law working with GALs and can help you understand the GAL’s role during your case. Call today to set your appointment to talk about your situation.