By Jedidih McKeehan

A term that you may or may not have heard of is the legal term, “guardian ad litem.”  Often times, the term gets shortened to, “GAL.”  What does this term mean?  A guardian ad litem is a person who is appointed by the court to investigate and inform the court of what the best interests of the child would be.

So, in what kind of cases would a guardian ad litem be present?  Well, obviously, the case would need to involve a child.  The most common type of case where there is a guardian ad litem are cases where the Department of Children Services (“DCS”) is investigating allegations that children are not being properly cared for.  When this occurs, the court obviously wants to find out information about the parents.  The guardian ad litem is the person tasked with doing that.  They visit the home where the children are/were living, speak to the children about their relationships with their caregivers, ascertain whether the children’s needs are being met, and most importantly determine if the children are being abused or neglected in any way.

The guardian ad litem is not someone from the general public, but an attorney.  When DCS is involved in a case, the guardian ad litem is compensated by the state (meaning your and I’s tax dollars) for the time they spend working on cases, performing their investigation, and participating in court proceedings.  If there is a hearing, the guardian ad litem will participate in the hearing just like a regular attorney by asking questions of witnesses and giving an opening and closing argument.  However, judges often rely on the guardian ad litem’s recommendation in making their decision because the guardian ad litem does not represent an adult attempting to get custody of a child, but they are there to advocate for what is in the child’s best interests.

In some divorce and custody cases, if there is a concern about a child being safe with one parent or another, a court may appoint a guardian ad litem.  However, in those types of cases, the court will order that one of the parents of the children be ordered to pay the guardian ad litem’s fees associated with their work on the case.


Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties.  He works in many areas, including criminal, divorce, custody, personal injury, landlord-tenant, civil litigation and estate planning. Visit for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.