Divorces are never pretty, but some circumstances are likely to make a divorce more ugly than it normally would be. One such circumstance is a “custody battle,” which occurs whenever the parties engage in a heated dispute over custody of their shared children.
For obvious reasons, this type of situation can quickly escalate into a serious squabble. In many cases, parties may have legitimate concerns about the well-being of their children, and their behavior in such situations may simply be a natural reflection of this fact.
In other cases, some parties sadly engage in custody disputes out of spite or anger toward the other party.
In cases involving so-called custody battles, or other complex cases such as disputes over grandparent visitation, Maine courts may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem (“GAL”) to provide assistance.
As we will explore, a GAL is typically an attorney, but may also be a mental health specialist or have another kind of professional background. GALs are hired to provide an objective assessment of a given situation for the purpose of resolving disputes. The logic is that the GAL is a non-biased third-party, and so the GAL can provide an assessment which can really benefit the court in its decision-making process in certain cases.
What’s more, the GAL can also look after the welfare of the child in question, and so occasionally GALs may make recommendations that a child see a mental health professional, or that a certain parent be denied visitation rights to the child.
In this post, we will provide a thorough treatment of GALs here in the State of Maine. There is plenty to know when it comes to GALs. We cannot touch on every conceivable detail here, but we will cover most of the essentials.
We will take a detailed look at the function of GALs in different types of cases, including child custody, child protection, grandparent visitation, and guardianship of a minor. If a GAL provides a report which is disadvantageous to your position, overcoming this negative report can be exceptionally difficult.
This is because courts place a high value on GAL assessments. If your case involves a GAL, you should obtain help from an attorney who is experienced with GALs. For more information, get in touch with the Maine Divorce Group today.
A Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) is a court-appointed professional who is tasked with providing objective reports on various issues. The court will use the reports generated by GALs to facilitate determinations on these various issues.
As an example, in a divorce marked by a custody battle, the court may appoint a GAL to provide an objective third-party account of the situation. As we will explore in greater detail, the GAL will conduct an investigation into the situation, which includes thorough in-person observation, and then relay the results to the court.
Not only is this type of report considered relatively reliable – the GAL is a neutral party, and so the GAL’s conclusions are treated accordingly – it is also relatively more affordable than prolonged litigation. Courts will often appoint a GAL quickly in order to minimize costs.
GALs have different professional backgrounds depending on their particular specialty, but all will have specialized training as GALs. For instance, a GAL may be an attorney, or mental health professional, and may end up focusing on child custody cases as a result.
Another GAL may have a law enforcement background, and may therefore end up concentrating on child protection cases. Depending on his or her background, GALs may only be eligible to serve in specific types of cases.
A GAL who focuses on child custody battles may not be able to serve in child protection cases, for instance, depending on the details of his or her credentials.
Along with attorneys and mental health professionals, the other common background of GALs is training as a CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocate. CASAs are essentially volunteers who have received specialized GAL training.
These individuals typically don’t have a legal background or mental health specialty background. Courts often divide GALs into two basic categories: those with a legal or mental health background, and those who are CASAs (i.e., GALs and CASA GALs).
If you review the State of Maine’s website, for instance, you will often see this type of breakdown involving GALs and CASA GALs.
A child protection case occurs when the State of Maine, through its Office of Child and Family Services, believes that there may be a risk of harm for a child in a given home environment. In other words, the State believes that there is a legitimate reason to be concerned for a child’s safety.
In this type of situation, the State can proceed in a number of different ways; there are various orders which can be filed, and different possible outcomes. The underlying goal of all child protection cases is the same: to ensure the safety of children, and to ultimately reunite children with their families.
The goal of protective cases is not to punish parents, but instead to keep children safe and bring families together in a healthy manner.
In a child protection case, the court will appoint a GAL to provide numerous services. Ultimately, the goal of the GAL is to evaluate the circumstances in order to determine the proper course of action.
The GAL will conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances and then provide the court with recommendations.
The investigation conducted by the GAL consists of many parts, here are a few of them:
In child protection cases, the GAL is either a volunteer, or is paid directly by the State.
As with GALs in child custody cases, the recommendations of GALs in child protection and divorce cases can be contested by either parent. In these situations, parents should be sure that they have obtained an attorney who is well-qualified to conduct a thorough cross-examination of the GAL.
As mentioned, one of the chief functions of GALs is to provide services in child custody disputes. The court utilizes GALs because these professionals can provide unbiased assessments, and these assessments can aid the court in its determinations. The precise services provided by GALs depend on the needs of a particular case.
GALs can be tailored to suit the needs of a given situation. For instance, if the primary area of dispute is whether one parent is suitable to have unsupervised visitation, then the GALs investigation will be limited to that purpose. When the court appoints a GAL in these cases, the court will develop a formal order which specifies the purpose of the GAL.
The order will actually state the type of appointment that the GAL will have: a “limited purpose” appointment, or a standard appointment, or an extended appointment.
Again, the type of appointment reflects the number of duties the GAL will have, and also the complexity of those duties. The order appointing the GAL is known as Form 125, or Order Appointing Guardian Ad Litem.
The details pertaining to the compensation of the GAL will be specified in the order. The GAL can be paid by either one party or both parties. The determination regarding payment depend on numerous factors, including the current income of the parties, whether the GAL was requested by one or both parties, property division in the divorce, the non-marital assets of each party, and other factors as well.
This is one of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to GALs in child custody disputes. As we’ve discussed, the conclusions of GALs are given heavy weight by the court, and this makes logical sense because GALs have specialized training, and are essentially objective third-party observers.
Ordinarily, there is no reason to believe that GALs will produce conclusions which are partial to one side or the other. Furthermore, the training of GALs leads courts to believe that GAL conclusions will be reliable. Nevertheless, there may be situations in which one party wishes to contest the conclusions of a GAL.
A party has the right to question a GAL in court, just like any other witness, and potentially challenge that GAL on his or her conclusions. Parties should seek counsel with experience in this type of questioning.
In the State of Maine, a grandparent has legal standing to initiate an action with the court to request visitation with a grandchild. However, in order to sustain an action, the grandparent needs to demonstrate that there is sufficient reason to grant such a request.
In other words, unlike biological parents, grandparents don’t have a presumptive right to see their grandchildren. But, under certain circumstances, grandparents can achieve such a right following a court proceeding.
As with other court processes involving children, the determination of grandparents’ visitation rights ultimately rests on the best interests of the child standard.
In these cases, the court has the ability to appoint a GAL to assist in making a determination. The functions of the GAL in these cases will mirror those functions in other cases.
This means that the GAL will conduct an investigation which may involve interviews with the parents, the child, the grandparent, and other individuals related to the situation.
Consistent with its role as an agent of the court, readers should be aware that GALs have a kind of “quasi-judicial immunity” when they perform their court-approved functions. This means that it is very difficult to prosecute a GAL for alleged misconduct in the context of a GAL appointment. Everything is context-dependent, of course, and so a GAL can potentially be held liable depending on the specifics of the situation.
As readers can see, regardless of the type of case, Guardian Ad Litems tend to perform similar functions. The basic idea is that GALs are servants of the court who gather information from an unbiased perspective in order to aid the court in making an objective and fair determination. GALs have diverse professional and educational backgrounds, but all will have similar training as GALs.
Although the court will place considerable weight on the reports and testimony of GALs, this doesn’t mean that everything related by a GAL will be set in stone or taken as pure truth.
Outside parties still have an opportunity to contest or challenge the conclusions of a GAL, and they should do so by using an experienced attorney.
As we’ve mentioned, it is imperative that those involved in a case involving a GAL obtain the services of an experienced family law attorney. You need to obtain an attorney who has experience with GAL cases in particular. An attorney can give you a good sense of what to expect and how to prepare in GAL cases.
The attorneys at The Maine Divorce Group understand how emotional and complex the divorce process can be and we are here to help.
Call to speak with a member of our team today, who can discuss your case and set up a consultation with one of our attorneys.
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