When you might need them and what they do in your Florida divorce
A Florida judge in a divorce proceeding can involve certain professionals to contribute their expertise to the case and to help support minor children. Today we look at the roles of social investigators and guardians ad litem (GALs).
Social investigators study each parent in light of their child’s best interests
In most divorces, the parties try to negotiate a parenting plan in which they agree to matters of time-sharing, parental decision making and ways of parent-child communication. Historically, these were issues of custody and visitation. The plan must designate how the parents will handle the details of raising the children on a daily basis, including a time-sharing schedule, as well as assign responsibility (which may be joint) for medical, educational, activities and other important life decisions.
If they cannot negotiate a plan or if the judge does not approve it, the court will establish one. The court has the option to order a “social investigation and study concerning all pertinent details relating to the child and each parent.”
The social investigator, who may be a court employee, mental health professional, social worker or child placement professional, investigates and evaluates all aspects of the child, parents and family relevant to assessing how to best support the child’s welfare and best interests. The resulting study, which is relevant, admissible evidence in the divorce, must include the investigator’s findings of fact and their nonbinding recommendations to the judge about custody and visitation.
Guardians ad litem support children’s best interests in divorce proceedings
A guardian ad litem has a unique role. Florida law directs they “shall act as next friend of the child, investigator or evaluator … in the child’s best interest,” but not as an advocate or lawyer – and not as a traditional guardian. They have the “powers, privileges, and responsibilities to … advance the best interest of the child.”
A judge may appoint a GAL, who must be an attorney or have a special certification, if it is in the child’s best interest, but the appointment is not discretionary if there is a solid allegation of child abuse. Either parent may request a GAL appointment. The GAL becomes a party in the divorce proceeding.
The law contains a list of nonexclusive GAL powers, including:
- Investigate anything impacting the child’s welfare (except as limited by the judge), including interviewing the child and witnesses
- Ask the court for an order to see the child’s or a parent’s medical records
- Ask the judge to order medical or mental health exams for the child or parents
- Make recommendations to the court orally or in writing
- Ask the court for relief “in furtherance of the [GAL’s] function”
- Participate in all hearings, proceedings and depositions, and compel witnesses
Some of these actions require the GAL to have an attorney of their own.
GALs must keep what they learn confidential except in a required written report for the court, which both parents will also receive. This report can include the child’s wishes and the GAL’s recommendations.