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Court-Appointed Guardian ad Litem

If you are just starting out in the family law area, you may want to consider getting on your local court-appointed guardian ad litem lists. As a guardian ad litem, you will protect the interests of your ward, who may be a minor or a mentally incompetent or elderly person.
 
What does a guardian ad litem do?
 
The functions of a guardian ad litem will vary according to the jurisdiction and the particular court. Generally, as a guardian ad litem, you will be required to conduct an investigation into your ward’s well-being, possibly prepare a detailed written investigation report of your findings and recommendations, and provide testimony. Your role is to look out for the ward’s best interests. This may or may not be the same as the ward’s wishes. If the ward does not agree as to what is in his or her best interests, the court will need to appoint another attorney to represent the ward in the advocate role separate from your role as guardian ad litem.
 
How do I get on the appointed list?
 
The appointment process is generally up to each individual judge or court. For dependency, neglect, and abuse appointments, the guardian ad litem can usually be an attorney or an unpaid volunteer. Therefore, if there are enough volunteers, you may not be able to get on the list. For other situations, such as divorce actions and probate matters, you may have to practice a certain number of years to be appointed. Also, you may be required to take training in your specific jurisdiction. This training will cover the applicable laws and the procedures that you will need to follow.
 
How do I get paid?
 
If you have ever been on any court-appointed list, you are familiar with the process. Generally, you will need to keep track of your time (and you will probably not be paid for your travel time, such as for home visits). You will then need to submit your request for payment to the court for approval. Payment can take a few weeks, and your court may have a cap on the maximum fee for each case. The pay is very low, and the time required often results in exceeding the cap.
 
Why should I consider this type of work?
 
Court-appointed guardian ad litem work can be very rewarding. First, you will learn a great deal about your local court and its personnel. Also, the judges will appreciate your efforts because it is often hard to find enough people to do this work. Additionally, whether your ward realizes it or not, you are very important to this person. It is hard not to get emotionally attached, especially in dependency, neglect, and abuse cases. These children have been through a lot, and they need someone to care about them and to look out for their best interests.
 
What else do I need to know?
 
You will make some hard decisions as a guardian ad litem. In a divorce action, you will need to recommend which parent should have custody, or suggest an alternative to sole custody that is in the child’s best interest. In a dependency, neglect, and abuse case, you may be able to recommend that the child return to his or her parent(s) following treatment, recommend custody to a loving relative, or recommend that the parent lose custody. If the child and parent can be reunited, it is an amazing experience. If not, it can be emotionally tolling on the guardian, but sometimes removal is the only way to keep the child safe. No matter the outcome, as a guardian ad litem, you will know that you made an important difference in the child’s life.
 
If you decide to become a guardian ad litem, limit the number of cases that you are willing to take to a manageable amount. Remember, it does not pay all that well, and it remains your case until it is completed, which can be years, in some cases. If you take on too much, you will get burnt out, and you will not have enough time to devote to your other, better-paying work. In other words, learn to say “no.”