Filing for Child Custody in Michigan: 5 Steps

The custody process officially begins when either parent files (opens) a case.

Before filing, consider your options for deciding custody:

Regardless of the route you choose, you'll need to file a case. However, if you plan to settle, you may want to finish your negotiations first.

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When you're ready to file, follow the steps below. If you have a lawyer, they'll prepare and file the forms for you.

Keep in mind that your county may have additional filing requirements. Contact your Friend of the Court office with questions.

Step 1: Determine your type of case

You'll open your case in the family law division of the county court where you live or where your children live. This division may also be referred to as the domestic relations division or, simply, family court.

If you're married to the other parent, you can file for divorce or separate maintenance (essentially, legal separation). Both types of cases address custody, parenting time and child support.

Unmarried parents must first confirm paternity.

If you've confirmed paternity by submitting a notarized Affidavit of Parentage to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), file a custody case. (You can also attach the affidavit when you open the case.) A custody case includes orders for parenting time and child support.

If you need DNA testing to confirm paternity, you can open a paternity case. It will also address custody, parenting time and child support.

Alternatively, DHHS can help with DNA testing and child support. Afterward, you can open a custody case.

Step 2: Complete your forms

Fill out a(n):

In their place, you can use interactive forms for divorce (for married parents) or interactive forms for custody (for unmarried parents) from LawHelp Interactive and Michigan Legal Help.

Depending on your case and county, you may need additional forms. For example, if you can't afford the fee to file a case (around $250), complete a fee waiver request. If you have an emergency, write up a motion for an ex parte order. For domestic violence emergencies, you can use the interactive petition for a personal protection order instead.

The parent who opens the case is referred to as the plaintiff, and the other parent is referred to as the defendant. Both are litigants.

You're required to sign some of the paperwork in front of the court clerk (or a notary) and to make at least four copies of all forms. In some counties, the court clerk's office makes copies for a fee.

The clerk can only answer basic questions about the forms. Make sure to have an attorney review the documents, even if you'll represent yourself in court.

Step 3: Submit your forms to open the case

Turn your signed and copied forms into the clerk's office and pay the filing fees (or submit the fee waiver request). Your case is now open.

Your case will be referred to the Friend of the Court (FOC) office. Each county has different FOC procedures, so ask the clerk about your next steps.

Step 4: Serve the other parent

You're responsible for having the other parent served — in other words, notified of the case and given copies of the court documents — within 91 days of filing.

However, you can't do this yourself. Michigan law requires the server to be over 18 and uninvolved in the case.

See your two options for service methods below. If you fail to have the other parent served properly, your case could be thrown out.

If you can't locate the other parent for service, contact the court clerk to discuss your options.

In-person service

You can pay the sheriff's office or a private process server to deliver the papers, or you can ask a friend or relative to deliver them.

The other parent may immediately sign a copy of the summons and hand it back to the server. Then, you or the server must file the signed document as proof of service.

If the other parent accepts the papers but chooses not to sign the summons, the server must complete a proof of service form and have it notarized. Either you or the server must file the form with the court.

Certified mail service

You can also serve papers via certified or registered mail — but you still must have a server over 18 who is not involved in the case send them.

The defendant must sign the delivery service's return receipt to acknowledge that they received the papers.

The return receipt then gets delivered to the server, who fills out the proof of service form (above) and signs it in front of a notary or court clerk. You or the server should attach the signed return receipt and file with the court.

Step 5: Wait for the other parent to respond

The other parent must respond within 21 days of being served in person or 28 days of being served by mail.

To respond, they file an answer that says if they agree or disagree with each point of your complaint. They can also file their own complaint to make requests.

If they miss the deadline, the court will enter a default judgment without their involvement. This means the court will approve your requests, as long as they're in the best interests of the children.

Note for defendants: Even if you're okay with the plaintiff's requested arrangement, you should file a response so you can participate in the settlement process. In your answer, simply indicate that you agree with all of the requests.

Preparing for what comes next

The next step is a meeting with both parents and their assigned FOC case manager (unless the case involves domestic violence).

At this meeting, either the settlement process begins or the case manager explains the litigation process and your alternative dispute resolution options.

No matter which way your case goes, take advantage of technology to be fully prepared.

The Custody X Change online app offers custom parenting calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, an expense tracker and more.

You can use it to put together proposals for the other parent, negotiate, prepare settlement paperwork or organize evidence.

Be prepared for every step of your case with Custody X Change.

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