Underage children who are involved in family court matters pertaining to child custody, protection from abuse, paternity, adoption, and other issues have a right to have someone in the courtroom who will protect their interests first and foremost.
Alabama law provides that, when necessary, family court judges will appoint a specially trained attorney known as guardian ad litem (GAL) to look out for the best interests of the child. The guardian ad litem will exercise independent judgment on behalf of the child.
Our state-certified guardians ad litem at Leigh Daniel Family Law in Huntsville, Alabama, serve as advocates for the best interests of children and other wards of the court who are unable to understand what is in their own best interests when facing legal decisions.
The guiding principle of Leigh Daniel Family Law is that we work with family members as they seek to make major, positive changes in their lives. Our family law firm prides itself on staying focused on our client’s best interests in divorce cases. As guardians of a child or a person considered legally incompetent or incapacitated, our charge is to advocate for that client’s best interests.
Our attorneys work, as appropriate for the client’s age and capabilities, to explain the decision-making process, ensure the client is informed of the purpose of each family court proceeding, and explain what is expected to happen before, during, and after each family court hearing.
Child Custody and Visitation Rights
In Alabama, child custody agreements are expected to meet the best interests of the child. But in a contested divorce case, the child may get caught in the middle. When child custody is disputed, the court will consider:
- The child’s age and health.
- Each child’s current state of emotional development.
- Which parent has been their primary caregiver.
- How well each parent has cared for the children.
- The relationship the children have with the parents and each parent’s family.
- Where they might live and go to school.
- Which parent takes care of such things as teacher conferences and doctor’s visits.
- The willingness of each parent to work with the other and to do what is best for the children.
- The children’s preferences if the children are old and/or mature enough to voice an opinion.
The Role of Guardianship in Family Law
A guardian ad litem assigned to a child involved in a divorce is required to investigate to determine what would be best for the child and make a written recommendation to the court. To do so, the attorney will meet with the children multiple times to establish a bond with them, talk to them, and learn about their needs, interests, and desires. The investigation will also include interviewing the parents, grandparents, other relatives and friends of the parents, and the children’s teachers, coaches, and counselors.
The GAL also has the right to gather all documents required to make decisions, such as school records, medical records, mental health records, and reports by law enforcement agencies. They will also review all pleadings, notices, and depositions filed in connection with the divorce. If there is testimony pertaining to issues in dispute, such as child custody and visitation, the guardian has the right to cross-examine witnesses. The guardian may file motions to alter child custody or visitation arrangements.
When children are old enough to speak to the court, the GAL cannot tell them what to say but may tell them what the judge might ask them and answer any questions about the decision-making process. The guardian may advise the judge presiding in juvenile family court as to the child’s perspective and whether the child should be consulted.
Cases of Child Abuse and Neglect
In every case involving an abused or neglected child that results in a judicial proceeding, Alabama law requires the appointment of an attorney to act as independent legal counsel to represent the rights, interests, welfare, and well-being of the child and serve as guardian ad litem. The GAL is to take part in all court proceedings with primary responsibility for protecting the interests of the child.
Dependency law protects children from abuse and neglect. A juvenile judge who hears allegations involving child abuse and neglect may make a finding of dependency if the family juvenile court determines a parent is not taking proper care of a child. The juvenile court judge will appoint a guardian ad litem to serve as an advisor to the court in cases involving juvenile dependency or termination of parental rights.
The duties of the guardian ad litem include:
- Meeting with the child prior to court hearings and when apprised of emergencies or significant events affecting the child
- Explaining in terms understandable to the child what is expected to happen during each court hearing
- Conducting an independent investigation
- Advocating for appropriate services for the child and the family
- Attending all scheduled court hearings and filing all necessary pleadings to facilitate the best interests of the child.
Paternity and Legal Fatherhood
A judge conducting a pre-trial hearing in a paternity case in Alabama is to evaluate the probability of determining the existence of the father-and-child relationship in a trial and whether a judicial declaration of the relationship would be in the best interest of the child.
The child who is the subject of a paternity case may be made a party to the legal filing and may be represented by a guardian ad litem appointed by the court.
A child’s guardian ad litem may recommend to the court that the action is not in the child’s best interests. Conversely, the GAL may initiate a petition for the court to declare the existence or nonexistence of the father-and-child relationship, if this is in the child’s best interests.
In the pre-trial hearing, the judge may recommend a settlement that includes any of the following:
- That the action be dismissed with or without prejudice
- That the alleged father, the mother, and the child come to a compromise agreement
- That the alleged father voluntarily acknowledges his paternity of the child.
If any of the three parties object to the judge’s recommendation, and blood and genetic tests have not been done, the court can then require the parties to submit to genetic tests, if practicable. Based on the test results, the judge is to make an appropriate final recommendation. If any party refuses to accept the final recommendation, the case goes before a trial judge. In this case, the GAL will continue to advise and assist their underage client. in the legal proceedings.
Talk to Leigh Daniel Family Law About a Guardian Ad Litem
If a guardian ad litem who is NOT a Leigh Daniels Family Law attorney has been appointed to assist a child in a legal action you are involved in, we can prepare you for the GAL interview and document requests during the proceedings. We recommend such a briefing because a GAL has the right to use any information you provide in their reports and recommendations to the court.
Call today or fill out a contact form online to schedule a confidential consultation with an experienced family law attorney.