Ask Rising Stars: What is a guardian ad litem’s role in family court?

December 1, 2008 Philadelphia Magazine

The Latin phrase means ‘guardian at law,’ and typically refers to a court-appointed person who represents the interests of a child during a specific legal proceeding. For example, a guardian may be appointed in a custody dispute to allow for the child’s interests to be effectively, individually advocated, separate from the positions taken by each parent. A guardian is necessary when the child’s personal, educational or financial interests are in conflict with the parents’ choices. This often arises in cases involving neglect and abuse, but appointments are not reserved for those cases only. A guardian can also oversee bank accounts and real and other personal property.

Under Pennsylvania law—with some exceptions— the family court and the orphans’ court divisions generally oversee guardian appointment. Attorneys often serve as guardians, but the court can appoint any competent adult to serve. A court has the authority to appoint a guardian to represent a minor, even if neither party in a court proceeding makes a request, particularly if the court believes that the child’s interests are not adequately represented. A guardian ad litem is discharged when the legal proceeding finalizes, or upon the final approval of a schedule of distribution when monetary issues are contested. A guardian may serve on a pro bono basis.