Guardians ad Litem and Custody Studies

In the state of Wisconsin, when parents cannot reach an agreement on custody and placement of their child, the court will appoint a Guardian ad Litem to the case. The Guardian ad Litem, or GAL, is a family law attorney appointed to represent the best interests of the child. The role of the GAL is to make a recommendation to the court and to advocate for the recommended custody/placement arrangement.

Each GAL handles their case differently. However, you can expect that he/she will speak with both parties extensively, as well as any relevant third parties. The GAL may contact collateral sources, and may speak to the child, depending on his/her age. The wishes of the child are taken into account, but this does not necessarily translate directly into the GAL’s recommendations. Expect that the GAL will also do home visits for both parties.

If you are a party to a case in which a GAL has been appointed, you should consult with a family law attorney to best prepare for the investigation. Gather your thoughts surrounding the case: support for why the GAL should support your position, and the flaws in the other party’s position. Discussing this with your attorney can help you tailor the information you convey to the GAL as smoothly as possible, and can help you provide the GAL with the relevant facts. This will make the GAL more receptive to hearing what you have to say throughout this process. You should also put together documentation that supports your position. A GAL will find what you have to say much more credible if you have the facts and reports to back it up, especially at the get go. Be wary that there is no attorney-client privilege between you and the GAL, and that anything you reveal to the GAL concerning you or the other party could be told in open court.

A family court study often accompanies a GAL appointment. A study is an investigation into both parties’ lives, but also provides for a recommendation on custody/placement. In many counties, a party would have to hire an expert to conduct the study. If your case is in Dane County, the courthouse provides this as a resource, at a cost determined by both parties’ incomes.

In a family court study, a social worker is assigned to your case, and often times the GAL will be present for every appointment you have. Initially, a joint interview with the other parent will occur. Then, you will be interviewed individually. The social worker and GAL will conduct a home visit, as well as have you and your child come to the office to both speak with the child and observe your interaction.

You are likely to receive many forms to fill out from both the GAL and the social worker. These may include anything from simple intake information, to detailed questionnaires regarding your concerns with placement and/or the other parent. You may also be asked to fill out a proposed parenting plan and to provide support for your reasoning. You should always have your attorney review a draft of the paperwork before you return it.

You may have between three to five collateral sources contact the social worker on your behalf. For example, many people submit the following sources: friends, family members, neighbors, care providers, etc. You can expect that during the study you will be asked to sign authorizations and releases for your children as well as yourself. The study will delve into your medical and criminal history, and may report specifically on its findings. The GAL and social worker may also contact people involved in your child’s life such as your significant other, doctors, teachers, coaches, etc.

In Dane County, the study must be completed within 120 days from the referral. The study will result in a recommendation for custody/placement and a request for a status conference with the judge. If the parties reach an agreement based either on the recommendations, or amongst themselves, that agreement can be implemented into an order. If the parties continue to disagree, despite the recommendations, they will have opportunity to request that a trial be scheduled during the status conference.

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About the Author: Annabelle Vang

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