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Wheaton family law attorneyCourts generally prioritize child-related issues over financial matters, which is why the Illinois Supreme Court rules require mediation as the first step in a contested case involving minor children. If mediation fails, and there is no agreement on any child-related issues (parenting time, decision making, etc.), the Court may on its own motion, or at the request of the parties, appoint a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) to represent the minor child(ren)’s best interests. A GAL is a third-party attorney that is trained in child-related matters and appointed by the Court as the Court’s witness to act as the “eyes and ears of the court” on behalf of a minor child or children.  Their role is to conduct an investigation and report to the court with recommendations. The Court typically appoints attorneys who they respect and trust their judgment, and therefore the GAL plays a crucial part in the outcome of the case, so it’s imperative you understand their role and your responsibilities related to it.

Part of the GAL process includes interviewing both parties and meeting with the child(ren) on at least one occasion. It can be intimidating to have someone interview you and your children, so you should prepare for your first meeting with your attorney. Here are some important things you should know if a GAL is appointed to your case.

  1. Fees – The Court assigns a retainer fee for the Guardian ad Litem and allocates the GAL’s fees. In many scenarios, the retainer and fees will be split 50/50. However, that is not the situation in every case. For example, if one party makes significantly more than the other, the Court may allocate the higher-earning party to be responsible for a large portion or all of the GAL fees. Some judges also require the party requesting the GAL to pay a larger portion of the fees. GAL fees are usually considered “without prejudice and subject to reallocation.”  This means that the Court’s order regarding fees is not final, and you can have your attorney file a motion to reallocate the fees at a later time for a number of reasons. For example, if your ex is being especially difficult, not cooperating with the GAL, and incurring many fees, the Court can consider their actions when reallocating fees. Most often however—absent egregious conduct—the courts allocate fees based upon income or each party’s respective financial position.  GAL’s typically invoice the parties similarly to private counsel and are required to submit their billing statements to the court every 90 days.
  2. The GAL Order – The GAL appointment order will set forth the GAL’s contact information, the contact information of both parties, the retainer and fees, the date for status on the GAL report, and what issues the GAL is appointed to explore. The Order will also say whether the GAL will make a written report or just an oral report to the Court. Most of the time, the Court will reserve the issue of a formal written report to save time and money. In the event of a trial, the Court may ask the GAL to prepare a written report and disseminate it to the parties and the Court ahead of the trial.
  3. Initial and subsequent meetings with the GAL – Each GAL has his or her own standard procedures, so your attorney cannot predict exactly what will happen at the first meeting. Some GALs require that you personally call their office to set up your initial appointment. Other GALs or their staff may reach out to you directly. Usually, the GAL will send out an initial letter explaining the process and enclosing an initial parental questionnaire for you to fill out.  Sometimes they can also include releases or criminal background checks. Prior to your meeting, you should complete and review any and all forms with your attorney. You should be dressed appropriately, on time, and prepared for your meeting. Either during your first meeting or a subsequent meeting, you will need to provide evidence and information to support your position and claims. This should always be reviewed with your attorney prior to submitting it to the GAL. For example, if DCFS has been involved in the past, you will want to have all of the paperwork you received from DCFS ready for the GAL to review. The more prepared and organized you are, the more likely the GAL will be able to retain the information you provide. One way to do that is to provide them with a tabbed binder with all supporting documentation and a summary for each section. 
  4. Meeting with the children – The GAL will meet and speak to your children (if they are of the appropriate age) at some point in their investigation. Sometimes this is done at your home, the GAL office, or a public place. It’s important that you do not coach your children prior to the meeting with the GAL or interrogate them afterward. You can, however, age-appropriately explain the GAL and tell your children to be open and honest with them. Most times, it is very obvious when a child has been told what to say by a parent, and it does not reflect positively upon you. If your children have a counselor or social worker, the GAL may also ask for a release to speak with that person.
  5. Home visits – GALs have different procedures regarding home visits. Some GALs will automatically do a home visit, and other GALs may not do a home visit unless the state of one party’s home is in dispute. You do not need to have a cleaning crew come to your house prior to the meeting, but your house should be tidy and child-friendly. The GAL will mostly want to know that the children have adequate and safe living conditions as well as observe their comfort level in the home. The GAL may also want to meet other third-parties who live in the home.
  6. Third-parties – In addition to interviewing you and your child(ren), the GAL will likely speak to at least some collateral witnesses. Depending on your case, this may include medical providers, teachers, extended family members, counselors, or neighbors. Typically, the GAL will request you provide the contact information for third-party witnesses, and you should discuss this with your attorney before providing those names.
  7. Recommendations and settlement conferences – After the GAL has finished his or her investigation, they will circulate their recommendations to the Court or sometimes to the parties through their attorneys ahead of time. The GAL role also includes helping to facilitate settlement, so if it is possible for them to assist you in reaching one, they may schedule additional meetings or prepare proposed orders or allocation judgments. The GAL will stay on your case until the court discharges them, likely when a final order has been entered.

The GAL plays a critical role in your case and the process can be invasive and costly for many families.  Accordingly, it’s important that you communicate regularly with your attorney regarding your contacts with the GAL and you work with your attorney to develop a strategy for the GAL process.

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