Ok, let me first put a disclaimer here – I am a trained SC Attorney Guardian ad litem. But I was an attorney before I was trained as a GAL, although I do know several attorneys who served as lay guardians prior to becoming members of the Bar. In SC, courts routinely appoint both lay and attorney Guardians ad litem to Family Court cases, and, in my experience, we are lucky to have many fine GALs of both types.
Is a GAL necessary in your case? Generally, the courts in South Carolina may order the appointment of a GAL when there are disputes between the parties as to custody of and visitation with the minor children, and those issues cannot be settled amicably between the parties. In those cases, the court must make the final determination of custody and visitation based on the standard of “the best interests of the child.” It is the guardian’s role to find and present facts to the court that assist the court in that determination.
If Mom and Dad can’t decide who Baby should live with, or Mom thinks Little Boy shouldn’t spend every summer with Dad but Dad wants two months straight with him, then the court will order that the parents pay for and cooperate with a GAL investigation to determine any facts the court needs in order to make a final decision regarding custody and visitation. Guardian investigations are to be thorough and complete. The GAL will generally meet Mom and Dad separately and will meet the children. He will likely visit the schools, the daycare centers, and the parents’ homes. The GAL may interview any family members or friends that live nearby who may have facts related to the issues of custody and visitation. He will also interview the children’s teachers, caregivers, and doctors in order to establish that the children are educationally, emotionally and physically well-adjusted and age-appropriate in their progress, and that they are healthy. The GAL is empowered to review medical and school records. He will discuss any issues he discovers with Mom and Dad and their respective attorneys.
On the other hand, the GAL doesn’t have unlimited power. He should not be involved in disputes regarding financial issues such as the amount of child support, alimony, property division or division of payment for medical care. The guardian must not let income sway him in his review of the facts or in making recommendations to the court when the court asks.
Parties should take the opportunity to listen to the guardian’s concerns; they can rest assured that the court takes very seriously the findings of the GAL. If you are involved in, or may become involved in, a case in which custody and visitation will be an issue, discuss the role of the Guardian ad litem with your attorney.