In New Jersey, our Courts may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to conduct an investigation and to provide the Court with a neutral opinion about what custody or parenting time arrangement will promote the best interests of the children involved in a divorce or custody dispute. The New Jersey Rules of Court define how the GAL is to independently investigate and assess the circumstances surrounding the children and to provide the court with a recommendation based on what they believe is in the children's best interests. The GAL may be a lawyer, a layperson, or a mental health professional. Attorneys for the parents may agree upon the person who they ask the Court to appoint, or a Judge may select their own GAL.
Here are some key points to understand about the role of a Guardian Ad Litem in New Jersey:
- Objective Assessment: The Guardian Ad Litem is a neutral third party whose role is not to advocate for either parent. The GAL is not a legal representative of children. They will conduct a thorough and objective investigation to gather information about the family dynamics, the living situations of both parents, and the needs and preferences of the children. You can read about other types of assessments on our blog too: click here.
- Fees and Costs: The parents pay the GAL for services, based upon an hourly rate set by the Court or agreed upon by the parties with the GAL. Typically, the parents pay an initial retainer either by splitting the fee or by using joint assets.
- Investigation Process: The GAL will typically conduct interviews with both parents, the children, and any other relevant individuals such as teachers, doctors, or family members. They may also review documents, such as school records or medical reports, to gather additional information.
- Separate from a Mental Health or “Best Interests” Evaluation: Even if the GAL is a mental health professional, their investigation will not extend to conducting any type of psychological testing or other expert evaluations of the parties or child. The GAL may offer opinions about the need for testing or therapy or other tools that help in understanding mental health and emotional dynamics, but the GAL cannot provide or insist upon those steps without an agreement between the parties or order of the Court.
- Recommendation to the Court: Based on their investigation, the Guardian Ad Litem will provide a recommendation to the court regarding custody arrangements, visitation schedules, and any other matters related to the children's well-being. This recommendation is aimed at ensuring the children's physical, emotional, and developmental needs are met. Parents are not required to accept the recommendations and the Court may not either, although parents should expect that a well-researched recommendation will carry great weight with a Judge.
- Trial and Testimony: In some cases, the Guardian Ad Litem may be required to testify in court to explain their findings and recommendations. Their testimony is often influential in the court's decision-making process. Your attorney, and the other party’s attorney, will both have the right to cross-examine the GAL if their recommendations are not wholly acceptable to you.
- Ensuring Compliance: After the court has made a decision based on the GAL's recommendation, the Guardian Ad Litem’s participation ends. Other professionals may be appointed or selected by the parties to ensure that both parents are complying with the court's orders and that the children's best interests are being prioritized.
The Guardian Ad Litem should be focused on the children's well-being and should not take sides in the parents' dispute. By cooperating with the GAL's investigation and being open and honest in providing information, parents contribute to a fair and informed decision by the court regarding custody and visitation arrangements. If you have concerns or questions about the role of a Guardian Ad Litem for your child or children, contact us at Cohn Lilfland.