In divorce litigation, couples with minor children sometimes have significant disagreements about what is in the best interest of the children. In these cases, a guardian ad litem (GAL) or attorney for the minor children (AMC) may be appointed to help arrive at a solution. Below is a primer on the similarities and differences between these independent third parties and how they may apply to your custody case.
GAL vs. AMC – Roles and Qualifications
In divorce litigation, a parent may be self-represented or have an individual attorney representing the parent’s interests. But who represents a child’s interest or voice? For a child in divorce litigation, a GAL or AMC may be appointed to represent the interests of the child. The roles of the GAL and AMC are different, which affects who will be appointed to advocate for the child.
A guardian ad litem (or GAL) is a person who is appointed by the Connecticut family court, either upon the filing of a motion by a party or upon the court’s determination of necessity, when parents are not able to resolve child-related custody or parenting disputes. In those matters, a GAL may be appointed to represent a child’s best interests during the divorce or custody litigation.
The GAL’s role is different from the role of the attorney for the minor child (AMC). The GAL testifies as a witness and provides opinions as to a child’s best interests. The AMC represents the minor child directly, and advocates in favor of the child’s opinion as to what is best concerning the disputes at issue between the parents.
As the name implies, AMCs must be attorneys. GALs can be attorneys or mental health professionals. Both AMCs and GALs must complete mandated training and be approved by the State of Connecticut to serve in these court-appointed roles.
Should My Child Have a GAL or AMC?
The choice between a GAL or an AMC depends on the age and maturity level of the child. There is no strict age cutoff, but generally speaking, an AMC is more likely to be chosen for an older teenage child. For a 14-year-old who is more grown-up for his age, an AMC may be more appropriate, but for an immature 14-year-old, a GAL may be more appropriate. If there are multiple children in a matter, typically a GAL or AMC will be appointed based on the ages and/or maturity level of the majority of the children. In some cases, both a GAL and an AMC may be appointed, particularly when there are multiple children of different ages and needs (e.g. 8 year old and 17 year old).
What Does a GAL or AMC Do?
A guardian ad litem will typically meet with and obtain information from the child, the parents, their lawyers, the parents’ therapists, the child’s school, and possibly other professionals in the child’s life, such as the child’s doctor, mental health professional, or coach, to get a complete picture of the child’s needs. Rather than playing an attorney’s role in court, GALs serve as witnesses, taking the stand and testifying to make recommendations about what they believe would be in the best interest of the child.
By contrast, an attorney for minor children is tasked with advocating an older child’s preference as to what is in the teenager’s best interests. The AMC operates much like a lawyer with a client. Rather than recommending that the Connecticut family court do what the AMC thinks is best, the AMC will spend time speaking to the child and then advocate for what the child wants, unless it’s grossly not in the child’s best interest. In court, the AMC will ask witnesses questions and make statements as an attorney would, but the AMC will not take the stand to testify.
A GAL can be assigned a comprehensive list of responsibilities, or the professional’s role can be narrowed in scope to one or two discrete issues of the case. Besides collecting information and advocating for the child, a GAL can also serve as a resource to meet with the parties with or without their lawyers present to help them arrive at a resolution.
How Do I Choose a GAL or AMC?
There is a list of state-approved GALs and AMCs, who have different experience levels and fees. If possible, the parents and/or lawyers will agree on which professional to use in the case and in what role, as well as which duties the GAL or AMC will perform and how the related fees will be paid. If the parties cannot agree on who to appoint as the GAL or AMC (or whether there should be a GAL or AMC), the family court will have a hearing on the issue and is authorized to make these decisions. In most cases, however, if represented, the parents’ attorneys should be able to reach an agreement on the GAL or AMC.
Alternative to GALs and AMCs
The divorcing parties pay for the fees of the GALs and AMCs, just as they would pay for their own attorneys. When the parents lack the means to pay, the Connecticut family court may assign the parenting or child-related dispute to Family Relations to perform an investigation and make recommendations on behalf of the children. Family Relations is an arm of the Judicial Branch and serves multiple roles for the Court. Family Relations can make recommendations in response to one to two discrete questions or can perform a comprehensive evaluation when there are disagreements on both legal and physical custody.
If you have a question about GALs or AMCs, or if you would like to discuss your child custody matter with a family law attorney, contact the family law attorneys at Ruel Ruel Burns Feldman & Britt. Call 860-206-9096 or click here.