Marriage Story is the six-time Oscar-nominated film on Netflix. It explores a couple’s divorce and coast-to-coast custody battle. Nicole Barber moves her son Henry to Los Angeles with plans to stay. Charlie, Henry’s father, lives in New York under the impression that his family will be returning. Throughout the film, we meet a cast of characters that are familiar to the family law scene. Nancy Katz, played by Martha Kelly, is the evaluator that asks the hard questions on behalf of the couple’s child. In Virginia, we would call the role of an evaluator a guardian ad litem or GAL for short.
What Does A Guardian Ad Litem do?
GALs are appointed to represent a child’s best interest by serving as their attorney. They conduct independent investigations and report their findings to the court. To do this they have face-to-face meetings with their client (the child) and explain the guardian’s involvement using age-appropriate terms. Like Ms. Kelly’s, a GAL will conduct home visits to see their client in their home environment and observe the interactions with the parents.
During a home visit, a good GAL will try to build rapport with the child. They might be approachable and relaxed. You can expect them to be a critical but not so obvious observer. In Marriage Story, the evaluator was very stiff, awkward, and unapproachable. She set an uncomfortable tone that set off a series of unflattering comments and troubling actions by Charlie.
A good GAL should be communicating, coordinating and maintaining a professional working relationship. If possible, they should do this with all the parties without sacrificing independence. Parents might be nervous before meeting with their GAL. Nicole nervously jokes, “I feel like if anybody observed me on any given day as a mom, I’d never get custody”. Charlie shares the sentiment as they discuss the process of someone coming in to interview them, their families, and friends.
It’s not uncommon for parents to become suspicious of a GAL’s investigation. They might think that a GAL has sided with the other parent. Parents’ attorneys should remind their clients that part of the independent investigative process means that the investigation is on-going. The opposite party is most likely going through the same scrutiny for the sake of the child.
Guardians ad litem play an important role in the litigation process. A smart attorney knows how to guide their clients through the litigation process. They know how to prepare their client through a GAL’s investigation keeping in mind that the child’s best interests are the primary focus of the judge. At Phillips & Peters, we have extensive experience as GALs and working with them. When you need help fighting your custody battle, Phillips & Peters is your go-to family law firm that can help you move forward.