Custody Battle Costs Are Focus of Task Force
Hector Morera is a 46-year-old father of two from Glastonbury who is immersed in a four-year-long divorce proceeding and custody dispute. Like 85 percent of Connecticut parties in custody disputes, he is representing himself.
But even though he has no lawyer, he nonetheless had to dip into his retirement savings because the judge in his custody dispute appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent the interests of his minor children and make recommendations to the court about visitation, custody and other issues. A guardian ad litem may or may not be an attorney. Both lawyers and laymen must be trained and certified before acting as GALs.
Morera said the guardian ad litem alone has cost him $30,000.
He and other parents around the state and across the nation have been complaining for years about the costs of divorce and child custody cases. Some go as far as to allege that family court systems are corrupt, and that judges are in cahoots with lawyers, guardians ad litem and other professionals to profit from personal hardships.
In an effort to get a handle on the issue, state lawmakers passed a bill in the last legislative session creating the Task Force to Study Legal Disputes Involving the Care and Custody of Minor Children. The group will look at a variety of issues, including legal expenses and the role of guardians ad litem. The task force just began meeting in October and will continue to do so through the beginning of the next legislative session.
"We're trying to make sure we are understanding the problem, if there is one," said Thomas Weissmuller, a former trial judge in Washington state, who is a member of the task force. "In the end, we have to leave to the legislature the task of formulating the law. All we can do is look at the problem and offer recommendations."
Weissmuller acknowledged that some of the guardians ad litem fees that parents claim to have paid are outrageous, but he is hesitant to rush to judgment.
"When you approach anything that involves a legal fee you have to understand the context of the fee," said Weissmuller.
He said if the panel discovers that there are law firms "using a mechanism" to stress families financially, members will make recommendations for changes to court and ethics rules.
Peter Szymonik of Glastonbury, who has a legal background and has gone through a custody dispute himself, said the economic crisis at the end of the last decade led to the rise in guardians ad litem costs. For instance, Szymonik said that before the recession, the fee for guardian ad litem services was typically in the $3,000 to $5,000 range.