I am getting divorced. Do I need a GAL, and what is that?

By Hon. Christina Harms (Ret.), Director of the Child and Family Evaluation Service (CAFES) October 05, 2015

Mental Health Tips from William James College Faculty: I am getting divorced. Do I need a GAL, and what is that? by Hon. Christina Harms (Ret.), Director of the Child and Family Evaluation Service (CAFES)

In Massachusetts, a “GAL” (Guardian ad Litem) is a person (in the past often an attorney but at present almost always a PhD/PsyD psychologist or LICSW) who is appointed by a court. A typical GAL assignment is to investigate and evaluate and report upon (in writing) the facts and circumstances of a divorcing or separating couple and their children, and to make recommendations to the court concerning custody, a parenting plan, certain medical or educational issues, or other related questions that have been presented to the court by two disputing parties. “GAL reports” (commonly referred to as “custody evaluations” in other states) have been in use for many decades and are well recognized.

Strictly speaking, a GAL must be appointed by a court (as evidenced by a written appointment document signed by a judge), although it is increasingly common for both disputing parties (usually through their attorneys) to pre-select an individual or organization that they both agree is well-qualified and then suggest to the judge the appointment of that mutually selected person or entity. The GAL is paid by the parties (often, the fee is split 50/50 between them). 

A GAL is, by definition, a person respected and deemed qualified by the judge who ultimately puts his/her imprimatur of approval upon the GAL’s qualifications by signing the document that appoints the GAL. Thus, a GAL is surely considered an “expert” in his/her field. However, the GAL is not an “expert witness” for one side or another. A GAL is expected to function as a neutral, as distinct from an expert witness who is retained by - and may see themselves as an advocate for - one side or another in a dispute. 

Where budgets are unlimited, and litigation is extensive, it is not uncommon for a GAL to be appointed, and once the GAL report is received, for one or both sides, dissatisfied in any way with the GAL’s conclusions or recommendations, to hire their own expert to attack or refute the GAL report, in whole or in part. However, increasingly parties and attorneys and judges have striven to stay within more reasonable budgets, with the increasing trend of selecting a neutral GAL, and a tacit agreement that the conclusions and recommendations of the GAL will be accepted (however reluctantly) by both parties. Even where both parties decline to accept the GAL’s conclusions and recommendations, there is an increasing recognition among litigants and attorneys that the GAL will carry great weight and that the judge is likely to accept the GAL’s conclusions and views, and that it would be a steep (and expensive) uphill battle to contest them significantly. 

Until sometime in the early 1980’s the concept of having a group practice, or a center, where several psychologists practiced GAL type work together, was virtually unheard of. GAL’s and other such evaluators were essentially solo practitioners. Presently, GAL’s can be either solo practitioners, or members of a group practice or center located within a teaching university or teaching hospital.