When a divorce, parental rights, probate or other case involves kids, the court can appoint a guardian ad litem to advocate for them. Without a GAL, the children have little input on how the resolution of their parent’s case might affect them. Our attorneys have special training to serve as rostered guardians ad litem in Maine courts. It’s no easy job and it’s one we take very seriously. By conducting through, balanced investigations, we help families and judges find resolutions based on what’s in the best interest of the children. Read on to learn more about Maine’s guardian ad litem process, you can use the links below to jump to a section of the article.
- What is a guardian ad litem?
- GALs in divorce and parental rights and responsibilities actions
- The role of a guardian ad litem in family matters
- The best interests of the child standard
- Getting a guardian ad litem appointed
- Who chooses the guardian ad litem?
What is a Guardian ad Litem?
The term “Guardian ad Litem” is misleading. Many people reasonably assume that someone who serves in this role will be responsible for meeting your child’s basic needs and making decisions for your child. That is not our role.
Guardian ad Litem is a Latin term that means “guardian for the suit.” In Maine, Guardians ad Litem are used mainly in:
- divorces with children
- parental rights & responsibility actions
- child protective cases
- guardianship proceedings in the Probate Court.
Guardians ad litem in divorces and parental rights and responsibility cases
Over the past two decades, the Maine District Court has increasingly relied on GALs in family matters where both married and unmarried parents are unable to agree upon an arrangement of parental rights and responsibilities.
In all of these cases, judges are asked to make serious decisions. Who is best suited to be child’s primary caretaker? What type of contact should the child have with the other parent? Should this contact include overnights? Does this contact need to be supervised by other adults? Where should the child spend holidays? Should one parent be permitted to move to another town or maybe even another state with the child?
Often times, judges cannot make these decisions alone. This is because judges can only consider information that is presented during a contested hearing. Judges cannot leave the bench, go into the community where the child lives, and get unbiased answers from those who best know the child.
This is where a Guardian ad Litem can be helpful. We act as advisors to the court, and we are required to follow a specific set of rules and standards when fulfilling this role. Here are the rules for Maine Guardian ad Litems. More information about the GAL standards is here.
Roles of the GAL in family matters
Guardians ad Litem serve three basic roles: investigator, advocate, and advisor.
Investigator: GALs are ordered by the Court to conduct an objective examination of the family’s situation. This examination usually includes interviews with parents, the child if age appropriate, friends, relatives, and professionals involved with the family such as therapists and teachers. GALs also often review mental health and medical records of the child and parents.
Advocate: GALs do not only identify problems within a family but they also help to fix those problems in order to assure that a child’s need are being met. In many cases, a GAL may identify resources and services for the child and/or the entire family. A GAL may request that the child or parents obtain medical and mental evaluations or recommend counseling for any member of the family.
Advisor: GALs reports their findings to the court and make recommendations based on the “best interests of the child.” A GAL may recommend which parent should have primary residence of the child and a schedule for contact between the child and the parent who does not have primary residence. In other cases, GALs are asked to make more specific recommendations such as whether it is in the child’s best interest to move with one parent to a different community or state. GALs submit written reports detailing their findings and recommendations, and each party to the case is entitled to a copy of this report.
What is the “best interest of the child” standard?
The Maine Legislature has directed GALs to use the “best interest of the child” standard when making recommendations to the court. This is the same standard that the court applies when making decisions in cases involving children. The standard includes 19 different factors that courts must consider when making final decisions. Click here to read the law outlining these factors.
Not every factor applies in every case but they generally include:
- The age of the child;
- The child’s current relationship with his or her parents;
- The stability of each parent’s living situation; and
- The parent’s ability to cooperate with the other parent in caring for the child; and
- The existence of any past of current domestic abuse between the parents that could affect the child’s safety or emotional wellbeing.
Getting a guardian ad litem appointed?
The court decides whether or not to appoint a guardian ad litem in divorce and parental rights and responsibility matters. However, the court considers the wishes of the party when making this decision. This is because in most cases, the parties in these types of case are responsible for paying the guardian’s work.
Although courts can appoint a guardian ad litem at any time during the pendency of the case, it is most common for GALs to get involved at the start of a case. Maine law requires court to consider several factors when deciding whether to appoint a GAL to a case. Maine law sets out the factors a court must consider and they include:
- The wishes of the parties;
- The age of the child;
- The nature of the proceeding, including the contentiousness of the hearing;
- The financial resources of the parties;
- The extend to which a guardian ad litem may assist in providing information; concerning the best interest of the child;
- whether the family has experienced a history of domestic violence;
- abuse of the child by the one of the parties; and
- any other factors that the court deems relevant.
If the court decides to appoint a GAL, it issues a special order that specifies the exact role of the GAL in that particular case. The order specifies the length of the GAL’s appointment, the specific duties and responsibilities of the GAL, and the manner in which the GAL will be compensating for his or her work. In most cases, courts require the parties to share the cost of GAL depending on their financial means.
Who chooses the guardian ad litem?
Although the court officially appoints a GAL to a case, the parties can ask the court to appoint a particular GAL as long as that person is rostered as a GAL in the State of Maine. You can review this document for a complete listing of rostered guardians ad litem.
At Rioux, Donahue, Chmelecki and Peltier, our rostered Guardians ad litem are happy to meet with parents who are wondering if a GAL would be helpful in their case to answer questions, tell you about our experience as GALs, and explain how we could helpful in your particular case.
Image from Wilson X via flickr