Deciding how your family will be restructured to best
meet the needs of your children during and after divorce
or upon a court determination of paternity is perhaps the
most important decision you, as a parent, will make. Legal
custody, physical placement, and child support issues must
be decided to ensure that your children’s needs continue
to be met. “Legal custody” means making major decisions
affecting your children, such as medical care, education,
and religion. “Physical placement” means the amount of
time your children will spend with each parent. “Child
support” means providing for your children’s financial
If parents have disagreements, they must participate in
mediation to help them resolve issues. If parents still don’t
agree, the court will appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) to
assist the court in making custody, placement, and support
This brochure answers commonly asked questions
about the guardian ad litem’s role in the divorce or paternity
What is a guardian ad litem (GAL)?
A GAL is an attorney, licensed to practice law in
Wisconsin. The GAL’s role is to represent the best interests
of the children as determined by the GAL through an
The GAL will investigate the facts, participate in negotiations,
and take a position in court on legal custody and
placement. The GAL is also involved in the financial issues
of a case when those issues affect the children, such as
child support and child expenses. The GAL does not have
any of the rights or duties of a parent or general guardian.
Although the GAL may be incorrectly referred to as the
children’s attorney, the GAL’s role is to advocate for the
best interests of the children. This may not be the same as
advocating for what the children want.
What determines whether a GAL
becomes involved in a case?
When parents cannot agree on custody or placement, the
court must appoint a GAL. The parents must first try mediation
to reach an agreement. The court may waive that
requirement in specific legal circumstances. If no agreement
is reached, the court will appoint a GAL to assist the
court in deciding custody or placement. The court also
will appoint a GAL if the court has special concern for
the welfare of a minor child. The court can appoint a GAL
any time in the proceeding when the best interests of the
children are at issue. The exception is in a modification
proceeding if the proposed modification would not substantially
alter the placement times. In that situation, the
court may find that a GAL would not assist it in making its
How is a GAL appointed?
A GAL is appointed by a family court commissioner or
judge, usually upon request of one of the parents. The procedure
varies – some counties have lists of attorneys who
take GAL appointments, other counties have contracts
with specific attorneys for GAL appointments.
What is the GAL’s role?
In representing the best interests of the children, the GAL
may negotiate settlements, conduct formal and informal
discovery, hire experts, interview witnesses, investigate
whether there has been violence or abuse between parents,
comment on proposed parenting plans or any stipulation
or mediation agreement reached by the parties and
participate in all court proceedings. Either party may
request a status hearing before the court on the actions
taken and work performed by the GAL any time after 120
days from the GAL’s appointment.
Will the GAL meet with my child and me?
The GAL will meet with both parents, usually separately
and in the GAL’s office. The GAL will generally meet with
your child. The GAL will decide when and where to meet
with your child, which could be in the GAL’s office, each
parent’s home, or another location. The child's input will
be only one factor for the GAL to consider. It gives the
child a voice, not a choice, in the outcome.
How does the GAL investigate
issues that affect my child?
Because the GAL is an attorney, the GAL investigates
facts that are relevant to the issues in your case. Much of
the investigation is called “informal discovery,” which is
conducted through interviews with each parent, the child,
or other people with significant information. You may also
be asked to sign a release authorizing the GAL to review
relevant records, such as school, medical, or mental health
The GAL may ask other experts, such as a social
worker or a psychologist, to provide input and possible
future testimony regarding the case. If there are problems
with alcohol or drugs, the GAL may ask a parent to participate
in screening tests or ask the judge to order such tests.
The GAL also may use “formal discovery” to assist in
the investigation, including interrogatories, requests for
document production, or conducting depositions.
What factors does the GAL
consider in the investigation?
In investigating and developing input for the court’s
consideration, the GAL must consider the following legal
• the wishes of your child and both parents;
• whether a parent has engaged in a pattern or serious
incident of violence between parents;
• the safety and well-being of the child and the safety
of the parent who was the victim of the battery or abuse;
• your child’s interaction and relationship with you
and other family members;
• the amount and quality of time you have spent with
your child in the past;
• any necessary and reasonable custodial and lifestyle
changes you propose to make to spend time with your
child in the future;
• your child’s adjustment to home, school, religion,
• your child’s age and developmental and educational
needs at various ages;
• the mental or physical health of a parent, the
child, or other person living in the proposed custodial
• the need for regularly occurring and meaningful
placement to provide predictability and stability for your
• the availability of child care services;
• the cooperation and communication between
parents and whether either one unreasonably refuses to
cooperate or communicate with the other;
• each parent’s ability to support the other parent’s
relationship with the child and the likelihood a parent will
interfere in the other parent’s continuing relationship with
• any physical abuse or problems with alcohol or
• the reports of appropriate professionals; and
• other significant factors that would affect your
What happens when the GAL
completes the investigation?
The GAL generally will give the parents and/or attorneys
a preliminary summary of what the GAL will present to
the judge. The input could change depending on additional
evidence or facts that are uncovered. Generally, the
parents’ attorneys will discuss the GAL’s preliminary recommendations
with their clients. Most often, settlement
proposals are exchanged, and the case is resolved by agreement.
If the parents cannot agree, the case is prepared
for trial before the judge, who will consider the evidence
presented and make the final decision.
Who pays for the GAL?
The judge decides who pays for the GAL’s services. The
requirements vary from county to county. Generally, each
parent is responsible for one-half of the GAL’s total costs,
including the GAL’s legal fees and investigation costs, such bas tests and experts. The court also may require the parents to pay an initial deposit and periodic payments to the GAL during the case. If the judge decides that both parents are unable to pay for the GAL’s services immediately, the judge may have the county pay the GAL bill. However, the parents still are responsible for the GAL fees and the county may require the parents to reimburse the county.
Can I change GALs?
There are very limited circumstances in which a new GAL
would be assigned to your case. Disagreement with the
GAL’s recommendations is not a valid reason to request
removal. Only the judge can remove a GAL.
How long will the GAL be involved in my case?
By statute, the GAL serves in a case until either the parents reach a written agreement resolving the issues and the judge approves it, or there is a hearing and the judge
decides the case. The judge can discharge the GAL if one
is no longer necessary. If your case is appealed, the GAL is
involved in the appeal process unless the court orders otherwise. If a new motion is filed in your case in the future, the judge may reappoint the same or a different GAL.
This is one in a series of consumer information pamphlets
published by the State Bar of Wisconsin.
Answering your legal questions about
guardians ad litem
What is a guardian ad litem? What is the GAL's role?
Who pays for the GAL?