What Does A Guardian ad Litem Do In A New Jersey Child Custody Case?
A Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”) may be appointed to represent the best interests of the child in child custody or divorce proceedings. The lawyers at our law firm have not only handled many cases involving Guardian ad Litem’s, but have also had the honor of being appointed by judges of the Superior Court of New Jersey to acts as GAL’s in other child custody cases. The primary goal of the GAL is to perform investigations neutrally and make recommendations to the judge regarding what outcome would best serve the child. Either parent may request a GAL, or the court may decide to appoint one. As an experienced child custody attorney, I found this case to provide a nice explanation.
In F.S. v. R.A.L., the two parties met in 2002 and married in 2007. They had one child together, B.S., before divorcing in 2016. Various issues arose during the divorce proceedings surrounding concerns from the Husband about the Wife’s mental health and her ability to safely co-parent their child. During the divorce proceedings, extensive testimony was produced from both the Husband and the Wife, including witnesses and the testimony of a joint custody expert. The expert performed psychological testing and observed both parents interacting with their child at each of their homes.
The expert determined that the Wife suffered from a delusional disorder, but her functioning “was not markedly impaired and the behavior was not obviously bizarre or odd.” However, the expert stated that the Wife was experiencing irrational delusions that her Husband had sexually abused their child and his child from a previous marriage, that her Husband was going to harm her and her child, and various other unfounded delusions.
After considering extensive investigations into the Wife’s accusations, the judge determined that there was no rational basis for her delusions and that although she did eventually recognize that some of these delusions were false, she remained convinced that others were not. Despite these concerns, the judge concluded that the Wife was not negatively affecting her child’s impression of her father, or causing the child’s behavioral issues.
At the conclusion of the divorce proceedings, the Judge settled the division of their assets and finalized the parental responsibilities in relation to their child. The judge granted sole custody to the Husband but ordered a visitation schedule allowing time for the Wife to spend alone with their child, as well as holiday and vacation schedules. The Husband immediately appealed, arguing that the trial should not have proceeded due to the Wife’s impaired mental state and that the court should have appointed a GAL. The Husband further argued that the court should not have accepted the Wife’s testimony at all due to her impaired mental state.
On appeal, the Appellate Division disagreed with the Husbands arguments. The Husband did not raise the issue of appointing a GAL before or during the trial, and he did not raise any arguments on appeal as to how the outcome would have differed if a GAL had been appointed. New Jersey Court Rule 4:86-4(d) states:
At any time prior to entry of judgment, where special circumstances come to the attention of the court by formal motion or otherwise, a GAL may, in addition to counsel, be appointed to evaluate the best interests of the alleged incapacitated person and to present that evaluation to the court.
Here, the Appellate Division does not find merit in the Husband’s argument because he did not choose to request a GAL for his child himself, and because the joint child custody expert offered extensive neutral testimony concerning both parties as well as the child. The Appellate Division argues that because the Husband chose not to request a GAL for the trial proceedings, and because the judge was adequately informed in his decision by the testimony of the child custody expert, there is no reason to reverse the court’s decision on this basis. The Appellate Division will not overturn the holding of a family court unless there is strong evidence that the judge was clearly mistaken. Here, the judge was meticulous in reviewing the evidence and coming to her decision, and the Husband produced no information or arguments showing that appointing a GAL would have resulted in a different outcome.
The Appellate Division in F.S. v R.A.L. holds that a GAL may be appointed where the absence of one would result in a lack of representation of the child’s best interests. If a parent believes that a GAL is needed to ensure the fairness of a trial decision, he may request one for the trial proceedings. However, here, the court’s custody decision was based on abundant reliable testimony, and it would not have been further informed in its decision with the added consult of a GAL.