When is Appointment of a GAL Required?
November 4, 2015 § 1 Comment
There are three circumstances when appointment of a GAL in chancery court is required by statute: (1) when an allegation is made in pleadings or at hearing that there has been abuse or neglect; and (2) when there is an adoption to which both active parents have not consented; and (3) for the child in a termination of parental rights suit.
Other than those situations, it is in the chancellor’s discretion whether to appoint a GAL.
The question remains, however: what needs to be alleged in order to trigger the statutory mandate? That was the question before the court in the COA case of Carter v. Carter, handed down October 6, 2015.
Josh and Jennifer Carter were from each other in 2011. Jennifer got custody of the parties’ daughter, Delaney. Josh filed for modification of custody in 2012, alleging material change and adverse effect. In the course of the proceedings, Josh filed a motion to inspect the premises of Jennifer’s residence. The chancellor ruled that neither Josh nor his attorney should do so, but he appointed Aby, a local attorney to perform the inspection and file a report with the court. Although the appointment did not designate her as a GAL, and it did not spell out any duties of a GAL, Aby titled her report, “Report of Guardian Ad Litem.” Neither party had requested appointment of a GAL. At trial, Aby testified to deplorable conditions at Jennifer’s home, which the chancellor characterized as “shocking,” “squalid,” and “dangerous.” Aby’s report, considered with testimony about Delaney’s medical needs, were enough to convince the chancellor to conclude that custody should be modified, and he awarded custody to Josh.
Jennifer appealed, arguing that the chancellor erred by not appointing a GAL in the case. Specifically, she pointed to Josh’s testimony that she overlooked Delaney’s medical and nutritional needs, which, she contended, should have required the appointment. Jennifer’s argument raises what appears to be a simple question, but is really deceptively complex: what does it take to trigger the statutory mandate?
Judge Fair, for the majority, described the difficulty:
¶16. Our analysis of this issue is made more difficult because our supreme court has not elaborated on what sort of allegations are required, or when or how those allegations must be made, in order to make the appointment of a guardian ad litem mandatory. Neglect is difficult to define and could arguably be present, to some degree, in mundane allegations of imperfect parenting that should not demand investigation by a guardian ad litem. Jennifer’s implicit argument that any suggestion of neglect requires the appointment of a guardian ad litem would amount to a de facto rule that a guardian ad litem must be appointed in most custody disputes.
Almost every custody modification case involves allegations of “imperfect parenting” that often does not rise to the level off neglect and abuse. So where does one draw the line?
The court went on to point out that the MSSC “has always predicated the guardian-ad-litem requirements on the Mississippi Youth Court Law and related statutes,” and analyzed the applicable law. The opinion continues:
¶18. We conclude that since the requirement of appointing a guardian ad litem in chancery cases derives from an exception to the youth court’s jurisdiction over abused or neglected children, to trigger the guardian-ad-litem requirement, the allegations of neglect must be of sufficient severity such that, if proven, they would have triggered the youth court’s jurisdiction had there not already been proceedings in the chancery court. In other words, they must amount to an allegation that the child was a neglected child as defined by the Youth Court Law. It defines a neglected child as one:
(i) Whose parent, guardian or custodian or any person responsible for his care or support, neglects or refuses, when able so to do, to provide for him proper and necessary care or support, or education as required by law, or medical, surgical, or other care necessary for his well-being; however, a parent who withholds medical treatment from any child who in good faith is under treatment by spiritual means alone through prayer in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner thereof shall not, for that reason alone, be considered to be neglectful under any provision of this chapter;
(ii) Who is otherwise without proper care, custody, supervision or support; or
(iii) Who, for any reason, lacks the special care made necessary for him by reason of his mental condition, whether the mental condition is having mental illness or having an intellectual disability; or
(iv) who, for any reason, lacks the care necessary for his health, morals or well-being.
Miss. Code Ann. § 43-21-105(l) (Supp. 2014).
¶23. Given the wide range of conduct that could arguably constitute neglect, this Court has held that when neglect is not expressly alleged, the question of whether it has been effectively alleged is entrusted to the sound discretion of the chancellor. See Johnson v. Johnson, 872 So. 2d 92, 94 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004). In this case, the chancellor clearly did not take the allegations and evidence presented regarding Delaney’s health and care in Jennifer’s custody as possessing the weight and severity of an allegation that she was a neglected child under the Youth Court Law, and we cannot say there was an abuse of discretion in the failure to appoint a guardian ad litem to investigate.
The COA did hold that, if appointment of a GAL in this case were required, Aby’s conduct fulfilled that role.
It would be a good idea, if you think a GAL should be appointed, to include some language in your pleadings that invokes the criteria of the Youth Court Act. Then you can point to the specific language of the statute to support your request. Only be sure you have substantial proof to support your allegations, or else your client may be looking at paying out a chunk of cash for the GAL’s troubles, not to mention the other side’s attorney’s fees to defend.