Appointment of a Guardian ad Litem in Georgia Family Law Cases
Uniform Superior Court Rule 24.9 governs the Appointment, Qualifications and Role of a Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”).
A GAL is appointed by a Superior Court or Juvenile Court Judge to assist the court in a domestic relations case. The Judge may appoint any person with the proper qualifications to be a GAL. The GAL does not have to be a lawyer, but many times they are. To qualify as a GAL, the person appointed must satisfy the training required by the particular circuit in which the GAL is appointed. The training generally includes, but is not limited to, instruction in domestic law and procedure, recognition of the best interest of the child, methods pertaining to investigations into custody and visitation matters, the ethical obligations of the GAL, recognition of child abuse issues, and stages of child development, to name a few.
The role of the GAL is to represent the best interest of the child. The GAL is an officer of the court and is there to assist the court and/or the parties in resolving issues related to visitation, custody and other child-related issues. If a trial becomes necessary, the GAL shall be available to testify. Unless otherwise ordered by the court, the GAL's duties terminate upon a final adjudication of all issues related to the children in the case.
The GAL has the right to request and obtain all records regarding the child maintained by the Clerk of Court in the jurisdiction where the case is pending, and any other jurisdiction, as well as any records maintained by the Department of Family and Children Services, or other social or human services agencies and the Juvenile Courts. Upon obtaining a written release, the GAL may obtain any records maintained by schools, financial institutions, medical providers and mental health counselors. The GAL has the right to visit and investigate any residence of a party seeking custody or visitation of the child. The GAL is entitled to receive notice of any hearing and to participate in any such hearing.
A GAL may request that the court order any party to the case to be subject to mental fitness exams and custody evaluations.
Unless otherwise ordered by the court, the GAL shall submit a written report of their findings and recommendations. The GAL's report shall be entered into evidence in a final trial, but shall not substitute for the testimony of the GAL upon a final trial.
Upon a trial, the GAL is called as a witness for the court and is treated as an expert witness, which allows the GAL to give their opinion as to what they believe is in the best interest of the child.
In the event the parties reach a settlement agreement to resolve all issues related to the child, the GAL has the right to object to any such agreement.
It is in the court's discretion to determine the amount of fees awarded to the GAL, including apportionment between the parties.
A GAL, as an expert witness and as the court's witness carries a lot of weight in custody and visitation determinations. The judge is not required to follow the recommendations of a GAL, but in my experience, judges almost always do follow the recommendations of the GAL. GAL's are expensive and because they carry a lot of weight in the ultimate decision making, one must thoughtfully consider whether a GAL should be requested or not. In my practice, I typically do not request the appointment of a GAL unless there are very particular needs for such a person to be involved in the case.