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Social Study Investigator versus Guardian ad Litem in Florida

When parents in a Florida family law matter cannot agree on timesharing or parenting time, the Court has the authority to either order that a social investigation and study be performed, or that a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) be appointed, to assist the Court with the contested timesharing issue or the contested parenting time issue

While many people think of a GAL in the context of children with “at-risk” backgrounds, a GAL may also be appointed in family law matters, even where the children are not “at-risk.”  But if well-founded allegations of abuse, abandonment or neglect are made by one party against the other, then the Court must appoint a GAL in a family law case, per Section 61.401, Florida Statutes.

In a contested timesharing or custody case, the Court may feel it prudent to obtain the recommendations of a person who can conduct an out-of-court investigation.  In such cases the Court will often appoint a social study investigator or a GAL.  The attorneys in the case will often agree upon the appointment of a social study investigator or a GAL, who will be appointed to fill that role, and how the expenses associated with the appointment will be paid.   

A social study investigation is authorized by Section 61.20, Florida Statutes.  The persons authorized by the statute to conduct the investigation are:  qualified staff of the Court; a child placing agency; a psychologist; a clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, or mental health counselor.   A GAL may be any person:  certified by the Guardian Ad Litem Program; certified by a not-for-profit legal aid organization; or an attorney who is a member in good standing of The Florida Bar. 

The differences and similarities between having a social study investigator and a GAL appointed in the case are: 

  • A person appointed to conduct a social study investigation is not a party to the litigation, but instead acts as an expert witness in the case.  On the other hand, a GAL actually becomes a party to the litigation, and is entitled to:  attend all Court proceedings and depositions; file motions or other pleadings with the Court; question witnesses; and receive all notices of any activity in the Court case to which a party is entitled.
  • Both a social study investigator and a GAL will generally have access to medical records, school records and other records related to the child and the parents, and will be able to interview the parties, the children and other witnesses, including, teachers, doctors, etc.
  • If the social study investigator is a psychologist, the investigation will often include psychological evaluations of the parties and/or the child.  A GAL may also request that psychological evaluations be performed, or that other expert examinations of the parties or the children be performed.
  • Both a GAL and a social study investigator generally prepare a written report for the Court.  But a GAL report is not automatically admissible into evidence, where as a social study investigator report, under Chapter 61.20, Florida Statutes, is not subject to the Rules of Evidence.  Since such reports will generally contain hearsay, which is often not admissible in Court, this can result in a GAL report not being admitted evidence, whereas the social study investigation reports are often admitted into evidence, since they are not subject to the Rules of Evidence.

When you have questions relating to parenting time or timesharing or any other family law matters in Jacksonville, Florida, be sure to seek the advice of an experienced family law attorney

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