Courts making or evaluating custody awards in Michigan divorce cases must base their decisions on the best interests of the children involved. Michigan law begins with an assumption that it is usually in the child’s best interests to maintain a close relationship with each parent. Judges can consider any factor relevant to parenting and are guided by some factors that are set out in the state’s laws. These tend to fall into the following basic categories:
A child’s physical health and safety is always a primary concern. A judge will consider each parent’s ability and willingness to provide the child with basic necessities such as food, clothing, and medical care. A court will also consider any mental and physical health issues affecting safety; a history of domestic violence may lead a judge to suspend visitation or to allow the abusive parent only supervised visitation. This applies not only to violence directed against the child, but also to violence the child may have witnessed in the home.
Important emotional considerations include the extent to which each parent has participated in child care and the strength of the emotional bonds between the child and each parent. If a judge believes that a child is old enough and mature enough to make intelligent and independent choices, the judge may allow the child to state a preference as to custody. Courts generally favor arrangements that maintain continuity and stability, including those that allow a child to stay in the same school and maintain relationships with people who are important to the child, such as siblings. A court will consider the length of time that a living arrangement has been stable, as well as whether the stability is likely to continue into the future.
The extent to which each parent is willing and able to encourage a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent is an important factor. In considering whether joint custody might be appropriate, the judge will pay close attention to the ability of the parents to cooperate and come to mutual agreement regarding decisions.
A court may consider each parent’s involvement in a child’s education. This could include things such as helping a child with homework or attending school conferences. If a child has been educated and raised in a particular religion, a court may also consider the ability and willingness of a parent to allow the child to continue participating in established religious practices.
Michigan law allows a judge to consider issues of morality, but only insofar as they might relate to a person’s fitness as a parent. For example, a parent’s extramarital affair or current living arrangement with a romantic partner would be significant only if they would affect the child’s moral and ethical development. Circumstances more likely to cause the court to make decisions on the basis of morality include substance abuse, frequent casual relationships with multiple partners, verbal abuse, or illegal behavior.
Custody consists of both legal custody, which refers to a parent’s authority to participate in major decisions affecting a child’s health, education, or general welfare; and physical custody, which refers to the child’s physical presence with a parent. Michigan law requires that if either parent requests an award of joint custody, a judge must consider the request and must record the reasons why joint custody is or is not awarded. A judge considering joint custody will pay special attention to how well the parents cooperate with one another for the benefit of their child. Even when parents have joint legal custody, judges may find that it’s in a child’s best interest to have a primary physical home base, and to spend specified periods of time at the other parent’s home.
Judges always prefer that parents make their own agreements about how to share parenting time. An agreement between parents must be approved and signed by a judge to become an enforceable court order. Mediation is available for parents who wish to have the assistance of a neutral third party in developing a parenting plan. Where the parties cannot agree on an acceptable plan, the judge will develop one; sometimes the judge will appoint a referee to hear evidence and make recommendations, and in some cases a custody evaluator will investigate circumstances affecting the child and make a report to the court. In particularly contentious cases, the judge may appoint an attorney to represent the child’s interests, at the parents’ expense in most cases. The more detailed a parenting plan is, the easier it will be to follow and to enforce. Parents should also keep in mind, however, that plans may need to be modified and adapted as children grow.