Since this Springfield, Massachusetts, blog has discussed guardianships and how they can help families protect their beloved children in difficult circumstances, we felt like it was important to make a distinction between a guardian ad litem and a straight-up guardian, as both terms may come up in Massachusetts child custody cases.
As this blog has discussed before, a guardian is a responsible adult, usually someone who already has a relationship with a child, who obtains a court order giving them legal authority over the child and the child's property. At least on a day-to-day basis, a guardian has the same rights and responsibilities as does a parent. They are responsible to care for the child, and, in exchange, they have the right to custody and to make decisions on the child's behalf.
A guardian ad litem is also an adult that is appointed by a Massachusetts court, but they will not have a relationship with the child. At least in most custody cases, their role is limited to investigating the facts of a child's situation, at least with respect to things like custody and visitation. The goal of this investigation is to help the judge make a good decision about the best interests of the child.
The guardian ad litem may have authority to conduct his or her investigation, but he or she will not be able to make decisions for the child. Moreover, he or she is prohibited from taking sides in a custody or visitation dispute or even from advocating for the child's wishes. They are only a neutral investigator, and many parents and others find them helpful in resolving contested custody disputes and similar matters.