Michigan Child Custody and Parenting Time Overview
Michigan family courts issue custody orders to ensure the safety, health and emotional well-being of children. They also seek to encourage strong parent–child relationships with these orders, when appropriate.
Your county Friend of the Court (FOC) office helps throughout the custody process. In most counties, parents are assigned an FOC case manager (occasionally called a caseworker or something similar) as soon as their case opens.
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Types of custody
Legal custody refers to a parent's responsibility for their children. It includes the right to make decisions regarding their health, education, activities, religious participation and overall welfare.
Physical custody refers to whom the children live and spend time with.
However, if it's in the children's best interests, courts can award sole legal custody (giving one parent all decision-making power) and sole physical custody (giving one parent the majority of time). When one parent has sole physical custody, often the other gets only supervised parenting time, in order to ensure the children's safety.
Courts can order any combination of the above options, including joint legal custody with sole physical custody, and less commonly, sole legal custody with joint physical custody.
Ways to decide custody
If they choose to settle, together they submit a parenting schedule and, possibly, a parenting plan to the judge for approval. For help agreeing, they may use an alternative dispute resolution method.
If parents can't agree, the FOC may recommend final orders to the judge. If neither parent objects, the court makes the recommendations into final orders.
If a parent does file an objection, the court holds a final custody hearing. Parents (or their lawyers) present evidence, question witnesses and argue for their requested custody arrangement. Then, the judge issues final orders.
Factors in custody decisions
Judges' decisions and FOC recommendations are based on the following factors, which help assess the best interests of children in a case:
- The emotional bonds the children have with each parent
- Each parent's capacity to give guidance, affection and discipline and to support their children's educational and religious upbringing (if any)
- Each parent's ability to provide basic necessities
- The length of time the children have lived in a stable environment with each parent
- The stability and permanence of current and proposed living situations
- Each parent's moral fitness
- Each parent's mental and physical health
- The children's ties to home, school and community
- The reasonable preferences of each child (details below)
- Each parent's willingness to support the children's relationships with the other parent
- Any history of domestic violence
- Any other relevant factor, as determined by the court
A child's age, maturity and understanding of the situation all help determine whether their preference is considered reasonable. A preference stated consistently throughout the case is usually given more weight.
If a case includes a custody investigation, the Friend of the Court investigator interviews the children and considers their preferences when making recommendations.
The judge often interviews the children as part of a final custody hearing, usually in chambers (the judge's office). Parents don't attend, but their lawyers might. The FOC caseworker or the child's lawyer-guardian ad litem (if applicable) may also be present.
Established custodial environment
While considering the factors above, the also court determines if the children have an established custodial environment — in other words, if they've lived with a parent for a significant period and rely on that parent for necessities, guidance, discipline and comfort.
Housing a child does not automatically create an established custodial environment. For example, the court may determine that the arrangement isn't meeting the child's emotional needs.
If the court determines that an established custodial environment exists with one or both parents, it typically issues orders that maintain the arrangement.
Showing the details of your custody arrangement
A parenting time schedule also says whether your family will use joint or sole legal custody.
To set more detailed guidelines for co-parenting — including rules for decision-making, communication, discipline and more — parents can agree on an overall parenting plan. Then the court can turn the plan into a court order the parents must follow.
Even if you don't have the court formalize your parenting plan, agreeing to one with the other parent can help you co-parent effectively and prevent you from having to return to court.
Deadline and waiting period
Michigan law mandates how long cases involving child custody can take: no more than 360 days from filing. The Friend of the Court office makes sure parents have final orders by then.
In divorce and separate maintenance (legal separation) cases, courts also face limits on how soon they can issue final orders: not before the case is 180 days old. Parents can file a settlement earlier to have it finalized right after the 180-day mark. They can also file a motion asking the court to waive the waiting period, explaining why this would benefit the kids.
Parents who aren't married don't have a waiting period.
Costs to expect
Attorney fees are the most significant expense for many parents in custody cases, and they vary widely. If a case goes all the way to a final custody hearing, parents may pay around $10,000 each to lawyers. In more complex cases, that figure can rise to $50,000 or higher.
Many lawyers offer a sliding fee or a set price to handle straightforward settlements, typically between $2,500 and $5,000.
Parents with low or moderate incomes may be eligible for free or low-cost legal representation through a legal aid office or the Modest Means Program.
Most Friend of the Court services are free, such as conciliation and mediation. If the FOC office refers a case to a community dispute resolution center, parents pay an income-based fee (typically between $75 and $125 per session.) Some FOC offices may charge a fee for a custody investigation requested by a parent.
Parents can opt to hire a private mediator or investigator; both cost several hundred dollars an hour.
Many parents represent themselves in custody cases (called "pro se" or "in pro per" representation). But the law can be confusing without legal training, so experts don't recommend this, especially not in cases with high conflict or special circumstances.
If you are representing yourself, prepare as thoroughly as a lawyer would. Carefully review Michigan's court rules, including the rules of civil procedure. Keep in mind that the Friend of the Court office provides dispute resolution options and helps you navigate the court process, but it does not offer legal advice or representation.
Michigan child custody laws
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