Divorce, even in the most amicable situations, can be difficult for children. When divorce is not so amicable, and courts get involved, this can add to the stress of the situation. A courtroom environment can intimidate children old enough to understand the proceedings and overwhelm children too young to grasp exactly why they are there. Luckily, there are a variety of legally recognized advocates for children available in Massachusetts courts: a guardian ad litem, an attorney-representing-children, and a court-appointed parenting coordinator.
1. Guardian Ad Litem
A guardian ad litem (GAL) is charged with determining the child or children’s best interest. Typically, a guardian ad litem is a licensed mental health professional with a focus on working with divorcing couples and their children. A GAL may also be an attorney who has undergone additional training to work with children and their families. A guardian ad litem interviews the children, their parents, and other stakeholders such as more distant relatives and teachers, to determine what children most need. The GAL will then present these findings in a report in court.
In a divorce, either party or both parties may request the involvement of a GAL, or the court may order the appointment of one to determine the children’s best interest. The cost of a GAL may range four to five figures. Where cost is a concern and the need is urgent, the Commonwealth may appoint a guardian ad litem at no cost.
2. Attorney Representing Children
A guardian ad litem seeks to determine and present the best interest of children to the court.
However, what is best for children and what children want are often not the same thing.
Acknowledging this, Massachusetts courts also recognize the role of an attorney representing children (ARC) in family law proceedings. The ARC role is filled by an attorney who has undergone additional training and volunteered his or her time and expertise to the court.
Like a GAL, either or both parents may request the involvement of an ARC or a judge may appoint one based on his or her own discretion. Unlike a GAL, the role of an attorney representing children is to present what a child or children want in a custody agreement between the parents. When children are too young to understand the process or vocalize their wants, an ARC may, with court permission, submit “substituted judgement” of what the child wants, as the attorney can best discern.
3. Parenting Coordinator
A parenting coordinator, like a guardian ad litem, may be either an attorney or a licensed mental health professional. For each type of professional, Massachusetts law stipulates additional educational requirements and mandates yearly continuing education.
A parenting coordinator works directly with parents, whereas a GAL or ARC work primarily with the children in a custody dispute. The goal of working with a parenting coordinator is to settle custody matters outside of court. However, a court may order parents to work with a parenting coordinator.
In deciding how best to chart a future for your children as you undergo divorce, you need a knowledgeable and experienced ally. Our office can help you decide which sort of additional advocate best serves your family’s needs. Call today to set up a consultation.