Guardian Ad Litems & Parenting Evaluators: What’s the Difference?

When parents decide to separate and they have children, the issue of custody is one the court must make a decision on. The days where a mother automatically gets custody are no longer. The court looks at the best interest of the child/children. Sometimes the judge uses a third party to help in assessing the dynamic at issue.

A Guardian ad Litem represents the interests of a person unable to represent their own interests: the child or children.  They become a party to the action and must be told in advance of scheduled court hearings relating to parenting issues. They are only dismissed by order of the presiding judge on the case.  On the other hand, a Parenting Evaluator is not party to the action. They are also not an “advocate” for a child.  They do not need to be given notice of hearings, and their role is done once they issue a final report. So, the differences between a guardian ad litem and parenting evaluator are pronounced.

A judge may appoint one or the other, or both depending upon the facts.  Typically, Guardians ad Litem and Parenting Evaluators charge hourly rates.  Parenting Evaluators often do “flat fee” rates. Guardian ad Litems may have a “fee limit” established by the court that they cannot exceed without court approval.

Each county maintains a registry for Guardians ad Litems, and they are required to complete specific training in order to be certified to serve upon the court’s registry.  Lawyers, counselors, and lay persons may complete the training and become a Guardian ad Litem.

A Parenting Evaluator, on the other hand, is not simply a trained lay person, but rather a mental health professional, often a PhD, who has specific education, background and training related to family systems, child development, and child and adult psychopathology.

The function of a Guardian ad Litem is to investigate the child’s situation and circumstance, interview the parents and those familiar to the parents and child such as teachers, extended family, and perhaps counselors involved with the parents or children.  They are then called upon to provide a report of their investigation and factual findings.  A guardian ad litem (GAL) represents the best interests of a vulnerable or underage individual for a specific purpose and for a specific period of time.  They make specific factual findings and from these findings, recommend a residential schedule based upon the application of Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 26.09.184.  They are to be an advocate for the child, and represent the best interests of the childThe Guardian ad Litem is not expected to make diagnostic or therapeutic recommendations but shall provide an information base from which the court and parties may draw resources.

A Parenting Evaluator, conversely, does not represent the child, but rather investigates the parents and child, may perform certain psychological testing or have another certified professional provide such testing.  Like Guardians ad Litem, Parenting Evaluators provide recommendations to the court regarding the residential schedule of the children.  They are to identify each parent’s relative parenting strengths and weaknesses and the integration of these competencies and deficiencies to the psychological and developmental needs of the child.  In applying this information, Parenting Evaluators will often also recommend therapeutic resources to either or both parents and/or the child to aid in developing healthier family systems.

While it is true that Guardians ad Litem and Parenting Evaluators share many functions, their primary differences are their role in the litigation process (party instead of expert) and investigative methodology (fact gathering instead of behavioral interpretation and recommendations).  Which professional should be appointed in a family law issue with children depends on allegations and issues raised by those involved.

Oftentimes, talking with an experienced family law attorney may give you insight as to if a Parenting Evaluator or Guardian ad Litem may be helpful in your situation. At Miller Law Group, we are happy to help give you guidance.  Jennifer Miller completed the King County Guardian ad Litem training.