This article is a part of our Family Law 101 series.

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What is a guardian ad litem (GAL)?

An attorney appointed by a Virginia judge to represent a minor in a family law matter, or an incapacitated person in any legal matter, is a guardian ad litem (GAL). Virginia maintains a network of guardians ad litem whose purpose is to protect the interests of someone who is unable to take care of themselves.

Guardian ad litem meaning

The phrase “ad litem” is Latin for “for the lawsuit”, so guardian ad litem (GAL) mans “guardian for the suit.”

What is the purpose of a guardian ad litem?

The Code of Virginia provides Virginia’s court system with two separate guardian ad litem programs:

  1. For children, operating through the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts and Circuit Courts
  2. For incapacitated persons, primarily operating through the Circuit Courts

Children’s rights

Except for divorcing an insane person, this article deals exclusively with the GAL system that protects children’s rights. Pertinent sections of Virginia Code are:

  • 16.1-245.2. Evidence of medical reports, statements, or records; testimony of health care provider or custodian of records in juvenile and domestic relations district court; custody, visitation, placement, and support cases
  • 16.1-252. Preliminary removal order; hearing
  • 16.1-266. Appointment of counsel and guardian ad litem
  • 16.1-266.1. Standards for attorneys appointed as guardians ad litem; list of qualified attorneys; attorneys appointed for parents or guardians
  • 16.1-267. Compensation of appointed counsel
  • 16.1-268. Order of appointment
  • 16.1-274. Time for filing of reports; copies furnished to attorneys; amended reports; fees
  • 16.1-277.02. Petition for relief of care and custody
  • 16.1-278.2. Abused, neglected, or abandoned children or children without parental care
  • 16.1-283. Termination of residual parental rights
  • 16.1-283.2. Restoration of parental rights
  • 16.1-339. Parental admission of an objecting minor 14 years of age or older
  • 20-49.6. Proceedings to establish paternity or enforce support obligations of males between the ages of fourteen and eighteen
  • 20-49.10. Relief from legal determination of paternity
  • 20-124.2. Court-ordered custody and visitation arrangements

The list looks long because almost every legal matter related to children requires a court-appointed GAL to defend the minor’s rights. Virginia takes seriously its responsibility to safeguard its most helpless citizens.

Adult incapacitated persons’ rights

Two pertinent sections of Virginia law do connect family law and the GAL system to adult incapacitated persons:

  • 20-91. Grounds for divorce from bond of matrimony; contents of decree
  • 20-93. Insanity of guilty party after commencement of desertion no defense

In the rare instance that a spouse seeks a divorce from an adult who has been “adjudged insane,” the court may appoint a GAL to represent the interests of the insane spouse. Further, a person cannot claim insanity as a defense for abandoning or deserting a spouse. Your family law attorney can assist you with this unusual application of a GAL.

What do guardian ad litems do?

A GAL is a practicing attorney deemed qualified by Virginia to represent and advocate for a child in a legal matter. The judge assigning the GAL can direct the GAL to investigate a situation, make reports and recommendations to the court regarding the child, and provide information that upholds the best interests of the child.

A GAL has sweeping powers to interview and investigate anyone connected to a child-related court case. The GAL can interview medical, educational, and spiritual professionals familiar with the child. The results of those interviews can be included in official court records.

The GAL can also interview both parents and the minor client. These GAL interviews can make parents nervous, as the adults have a firmer understanding of the stakes — child custody, parenting time schedules, child support — than their child does.

The GAL is sworn only to advocate for the child’s best interests. That means the GAL can produce a report and recommendation to a Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court that does not honor the desires of either parent or the child.

Consider the reasoning capacity of, for example, a nine-year-old child with an alcoholic mother. The GAL can set aside the child’s wishes to remain with Mom and recommend paternal custody because that is in the child’s best interests, despite the emotional turmoil the decision causes.

How to tell if the guardian ad litem is on your side

In many family law matters, the two parents are opposing parties to a suit (separation, divorce, property division, and so forth). Each parent is represented by an attorney who advocates for that client’s rights.

The child is a third party in some lawsuits. The two attorneys representing the parents cannot also represent the child. The GAL represents the child, who otherwise would have no legal protections.

The GAL is neither a foe nor a friend to either parent, though both parents will often view the GAL as an enemy or an ally. The GAL only represents the child and advocates as zealously for the child, as the other two attorneys do for their clients.

Judges work with GALs all the time, so a parent may feel the relationship between judge and GAL is a bit too cozy for independent thinking. This is generally not the case, since the GAL has a professional duty only to the minor child. The perception of bias can be troubling but is usually ill founded. Remedies are available for any parent who feels a GAL is not performing assigned duties honorably, and nearly every decision in a family law matter can be appealed through the services of your family law attorney.

Who pays for a guardian ad litem?

In matters of separation, custody, and divorce, the Commonwealth can recover all or most GAL fees from the two parents. The court overseeing any child-related matter must notify parents (or other person with a legitimate interest in the child) of their obligation to pay for the GAL.

The judge in the family law case is the final arbiter of who pays and how much is paid by the parties (with any remaining amount paid by the Commonwealth).

The Commonwealth allows a GAL to work as many hours as needed and be compensated for each case. For expenses totaling $500 or more, the GAL must submit a detailed statement indicating the dates, times, and tasks performed in the hours billed.

GAL home visits & interviews

The GAL is legally bound to work with your child, so you must accommodate requests for interviews and visits with your child. Additionally, the GAL will almost always interview both parents. These interviews can be stressful, since you know the GAL has considerable influence on the judge’s ruling.

Most GALs are asked by the judge to perform home visits. These visits can be especially difficult for you as a parent. A natural instinct is to treat a visitor to your home as a friend. This instinct can cause you to lower your guard. GALs are professionals, much as law enforcement officers are. GALs are not your friends, though they are not your natural enemies, either.

How to prepare for a guardian ad litem visit

Consider these suggestions before a GAL visit:

    • Prepare yourself — Gather family photographs, videos, and important mementos; review your own biography and work history to state it confidently; gather important paperwork about your child; practice your legal argument so it is clear, direct, and logical; brace yourself for the GAL to ask your child probing questions about you in your presence
    • Prepare your home — Remove anything that suggests a less-than-wholesome family life; cage or isolate worrisome pets; banish nosy neighbors, relatives, and romantic partners from your house; clean your home, including the medicine cabinet, refrigerator, and sinks
    • Prepare your child — Let your children ask all the questions they want about the visit ahead of time, but keep your responses vaguely reassuring (since you do not know what the GAL will ask or do); do not rehearse anything with your child, since every GAL will ask every child these questions: “What has your Dad said about my visit?” “Were you told not to tell me anything?” “Did your Dad coach you on what to say?”

GAL visits can be scheduled or unexpected. Conscientious GALs visit both parents. The interval between a visit and a prepared report can seem interminable, but eventually the GAL’s opinion will be incorporated into a judge’s ruling along with all the other information provided by the parents’ attorneys and other professionals.

What questions does a guardian ad litem ask parents?

Certainly, each guardian ad litem will have their own standard questions and approach to the investigation, but you should plan to talk about your relationship with your former partner as well as your children. The GAL will ask about your child. Don’t use this opportunity to talk about the custody arrangement you’re hoping for or how awful the other parent is. Use this opportunity to prove what an involved parent you are. Beyond basic facts about your child that you should know—birthdays, pediatricians, dentists, teacher’s names, favorite foods and colors, etc.—a GAL may ask questions like:

  1. Where did you grow up? How were you raised? What was your family dynamic?
  2. Tell me about your history with your child(ren)’s mother.
  3. What would your child(ren)’s mother say about you?
  4. How would you describe your parenting style? And your child(ren)’s mother’s parenting style? How do they differ?
  5. Describe how you use discipline in the home.
  6. What is your ideal parenting arrangement?
  7. What has been the arrangement up until this point?
  8. Describe your respective parenting roles.
  9. Do you support your child(ren)’s mother’s role in their lives?
  10. How is/are your child(ren) doing in school?
  11. Are there any medical or educational issues concerning the child(ren)?
  12. Describe the daily routine of the child(ren).
  13. Do you have a history of substance abuse?
  14. Has there been a history of domestic violence?
  15. Do you have mental health concerns or have you had them in the past?
  16. Have either of you had trouble with the law?
  17. Describe your job.
  18. Does your job impact your ability to care for the child(ren)?

You should also be prepared to provide the guardian ad litem a list of people the GAL should speak to on your behalf and what they may say.

What questions does a guardian ad litem ask a child?

The guardian ad litem’s job is not to interrogate your child! The GAL’s primary goals when speaking to your child(ren) are to gather necessary information and to put the child(ren) at ease. That means that first, the GAL may begin asking questions about school, friends, family, family life, and interests. These are questions which should allow your child to open up about things they like to talk about or topics they’re familiar with.

Next, the GAL may ask questions such as:

  1. What do you like to do with your Mom? How about your Dad?
  2. What’s your favorite thing to do at Mom’s house? And Dad’s?
  3. Who helps you with your homework – Mom or Dad?
  4. What time do you go to bed when you’re with Mom? Dad?
  5. Why did your parents say you’re meeting with me? What did they tell you to tell me? Did they say there’s anything you shouldn’t tell me?

Remember that a GAL’s conversation with your child(ren) is meant to be casual. Don’t overthink it and try to coach your child.

How much weight does a guardian ad litem have in a case?

Say you want to make an offer on a house. You hire a home inspector and then tear up the inspector’s report. Not wise, right?

You cannot fault a Virginia judge for giving weight to the report she or he ordered the GAL to produce. The judge trusts the GAL to perform a thorough and fair investigation. The judge expects a professional report worthy of that trust and will give it substantial weight.


But no Virginia judge is bound to uphold the findings of a GAL report. The report is supposed to represent the best interests of the child under Code of Virginia § 20-124.3.

Always let your attorney assert any concerns you have (attorneys are not called “mouthpieces” by accident). Your objections to the GAL’s performance and report can be noted and rebutted without increasing their prominence in the eyes of the judge, but only if you let your attorney do so.

Call The Firm For Dads

The Firm For Men has extensive knowledge of Virginia’s Guardian ad litem system, but we are also skilled in all family law topics. Please reach out at 757-383-9184 or contact us online to find out more or to schedule an initial consultation.