8 Steps to Child Custody: Michigan's Court Process

Litigating custody in Michigan involves the steps outlined below. Some counties skip or reorder certain steps.

Parents can choose to settle their case at any point in the process. Then the custody process jumps to Step 8.

Some alternative methods for deciding custody, such as collaborative law, follow their own processes.

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Step 1: Preparation

Familiarize yourself with your county's Friend of the Court (FOC) office and the factors in Michigan custody decisions. Any special circumstances in your case can affect the process and the outcome.

Think about the schedule that will best suit your children, and consider adding a parenting plan to help you manage legal custody.

Ideally, you should hire a lawyer. If you can't afford one, you may be able to use legal aid services or other custody resources to prepare a strategy. Always have a legal professional review your paperwork.

Step 2: Opening your case

Legal proceedings for custody officially begin when either parent files a family court case in the county where they live or where the children live.

If you're married to the other parent:

Custody, parenting time and child support are automatically included when you file for divorce or separate maintenance (legal separation).

If you're not married to the other parent:

You must confirm paternity first.

Parents who do this by submitting an Affidavit of Parentage can file a custody case. The case will include orders for parenting time and child support.

Parents who need DNA testing can open a paternity case (which will result in orders for custody, parenting time and child support). Or they can open a custody case after the Department of Health and Humans Services helps them with DNA testing and child support orders.

Step 3: Parenting class

Most counties require parents to complete a parenting class called SMILE (for married parents) or COPE (for unmarried parents).

SMILE (Start Making it Livable for Everyone) and COPE (Co-Parenting for Everyone) teach parents about court and helping children adjust to divorce or separation. Most counties offer in-person classes from the FOC, and many also allow parents to take the class online with a certified provider.

Deadlines for completion vary by county, but experts recommend taking the course as soon as possible. You can even take it before you file a case. You don't have to take it with the other parent.

Step 4: Temporary orders

Early on, the FOC case manager holds a conciliation meeting with both parents. The court clerk will tell you how it gets scheduled when you file your case. If you need to contact the FOC, do this as soon as possible.

In some counties, conciliation is called an early intervention conference, an investigative conference or coordination. Regardless, this is when the case manager leads parents in a discussion of temporary plans for custody, parenting time and child support.

If parents agree on an arrangement, the manager prepares temporary orders for parents to submit to the court for approval.

If parents can't agree, the FOC may conduct a custody investigation (more below). With or without an investigation, the FOC can recommend temporary orders to the court. You'll have 14 or 21 days to file an objection, spurring an objection hearing. If neither parent objects, the judge will make the recommendations into temporary orders.

To skip conciliation, either parent can file a motion for temporary custody. Then the issue goes straight to a motion hearing.

Step 5: Mediation

In mediation, a neutral third party helps parents compromise.

Some counties require parents to attend mediation before a judge hears their case, but you can turn to mediation as early in the legal process as you wish. (Cases involving domestic violence are exempt from the requirement.)

Many Friend of the Court offices offer free mediation. You can also use a community dispute resolution center or hire a private mediator.

Often, parents agree on all issues during mediation. The mediator then drafts settlement paperwork for them to submit to the court, and the case jumps to Step 8.

If parents still disagree on issues following mediation, they continue through the remaining steps.

Possible: Custody investigation

In a custody investigation (sometimes called an evaluation), a social worker or psychologist from the FOC evaluates each parent's ability to meet the children's needs.

The court may require an investigation at any point in the legal process — often, after mediation fails.

Ultimately, the investigator makes a recommendation to the court. This may be for temporary or final orders, depending on the status of the case.

For final order recommendations, if either parent files an objection within the required time period (14 or 21 days), the case continues through the following steps. If neither parent objects, the recommendations become final orders and the case jumps to Step 8.

Step 6: Discovery

Parents prepare for their final hearing during the discovery period, when they exchange information they plan to present and request additional information from each other.

Discovery typically lasts two to three months, but can last six or more in complex cases. The process may overlap with other steps.

As part of discovery, you might have to turn over text messages, financial documents, medical records and more. And you can request similar information from the other parent. You might also participate in depositions — out-of-court interviews where parents and their witnesses answer questions from the other party under oath.

Step 7: Final custody hearing

A final custody hearing (sometimes called an evidentiary hearing) gives both parents the opportunity to present evidence and question witnesses in front of a judge.

You may have to wait weeks or months for your hearing to begin, depending on the court's schedule and if your case has a waiting period. A final hearing can last hours, days, weeks, or in extremely complex cases, months.

At the end of the hearing, the judge announces their decisions, which become final orders.

Step 8: Final orders

In custody cases, final orders lay out the legal terms parents must abide by until the children turn 18 or become emancipated. These include a schedule, a child support arrangement and, sometimes, a parenting plan.

If a judge decides your case, they issue final orders at the end of the hearing.

If you accept an FOC recommendation, you receive your final orders in the mail or at the court clerk's office.

If you settle, a judge issues final orders after approving your agreement in a brief settlement hearing. Depending on your county, the Friend of the Court office may need to approve your settlement first.

For divorce and separate maintenance cases, keep in mind that Michigan courts will not issue final orders until at least 180 days after filing.

Once a case has final orders, it's complete.

Throughout the case

During the custody process, you may need to create a parenting schedule and a parenting plan, track your time with your children, log interactions with the other parent, document expenses and more.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of this, with numerous custody tools you can use in Michigan.

With parenting time calendars, a parenting plan template, a digital journal, an expense tracker and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your case.

Throughout your case, take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts.

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