Lawyers like to use arcane language, or at least language that only we use. GAL is shorthand for a guardian ad litem, which is Latin for a guardian for the litigation, which is an arcane term for a person appointed by the judge in a divorce case generally to perform certain investigatory services in a custody or parenting matter.
The GAL is usually someone with a mental health background, although they can be a lawyer. Often the Family Service officers are appointed to do a similar investigation, usually in cases where money is a real issue. Some of the best investigations I have seen have been done by FSO’s. Like anything else it depends on the individual doing the work.
When two parents cannot decide on who should have custody, when there are allegations by one parent or both parents of abuse or neglect, when one parent has been accused of having mental health issues or drinking issues, or when there are removal issues (when one party wants to take the kids and move out of state) then a GAL may be an appropriate choice. It is an expensive and time consuming choice as well. Often if there are any kind of mental health or behavioral allegations psychological testing will be performed. It should always be done on both sides. The GAL will interview the parents, the kids, the parents with the kids (generally mom and kids and dad and kids not both together, often more than once, they will interview the professionals involved in the parent’s and kids lives, doctors, teachers, nannys and mental health professionals. The last will require the appointment of another GAL (more money) this one to determine if the circumstances warrant waiving the patient psychotherapist privilege between the kid’s therapist and the GAL so the therapist can be interviewed.
This is not only very expensive but very intrusive, but often enormously helpful.
Most people will never need a GAL, be grateful!