Protecting Children’s Interests: Guardian ad Litems and Parenting Coordinators

In dissolution of marriage proceedings, it is often that parent’s get so distracted in their own stressors, that the interests of children are often not prioritized—or worse, the children end up being used as pawns by their parents.  Luckily, Florida is at the forefront of many of the issues surrounding children’s interests as it applies to family law. Where parent’s struggle to agree in family law matters, there are two main resources that may be utilized by the parents and the courts, in order to promote children’s interests: Guardian ad Litems and Parenting Coordinators.

What is a Guardian ad Litem?

A Guardian ad Litem is a person (qualified under Florida Statute 61.402), chosen by the parties or by the court to represent the children’s best interests in court.   A Guardian ad Litem is a paid individual that is appointed to act as unbiased third party to help assist the judge in determining issues related to the children in the case.

Typically, a Guardian ad Litem is appointed when the court finds that it is the best interests of the child, or in cases involving allegations of abuse, neglect or abandonment of a child.  A Guardian ad Litem is to act as a next of friend to the child, an investigator or an evaluator, not an advocate for the child. When a Guardian ad Litem is appointed by the court, they become a party to the case as well.

Examples of actions that a Guardian ad Litem may take include:

  • Petition the court (through counsel) to request the court to order examinations of the children or related parties.
  • Through counsel, may be present and participate at all hearings, depositions and other proceedings.
  • Address the court and make written or oral recommendations to the court, including the wishes of the child.
  • Investigate the allegations of pleadings affecting the child.

What is a Parenting Coordinator?

A parenting coordinator is a mental health professional that may be appointed by the court to address issues related to children in family law proceedings.  Parenting Coordinators can be expensive, therefore the court will look into the assets of the parties prior to appointment and will allocate fees and costs accordingly between the parties.  The purpose of appointing a Parenting Coordinator is to assist the parents in creating or implementing a parenting plan and help address and resolve disputes between the parents regarding parenting issues.

Upon proper consent, the authorities of the Parenting Coordinators Include, but are not limited to:

  • Have temporary decision-making authority to resolve certain non-substantive disputes between the parties
  • Make recommendations to the court concerning modifications to timesharing and parenting plans
  • Have access to a party’s confidential privileged records and provide confidential and privileged records to health care providers and to any other third parties.
  • Have access to a child’s confidential and privileged information and provide confidential and privileged records to health care providers and to any other third parties.

What is The Difference?

Although it may appear that these two individuals have similar tasks, the reality is they serve a very different purpose. A Guardian ad Litem is to investigate and evaluate the children’s needs and wishes. It is often that a child’s needs can forgotten amongst the time and energy that divorce proceedings can take up. Children can often end up with their emotional and mental needs neglected, or fall victim to abuse.  A Guardian ad Litem’s job is to make sure that the children’s needs are taken care of and are represented in the proceedings.

The Parenting Coordinator is there to evaluate the family unit as a whole, and make recommendations to parents, on how to make parenting decisions.  In addition, the Parenting Coordinator is to issue a report with recommendations to the court on how it should decide when establishing a parenting plan and timesharing schedule. Due to both of their unique roles, both of these professionals can be extremely useful in protecting a child’s interest during family law proceedings and are encouraged in divorces that involve children and are likely to be highly contentious.