The Michigan divorce process is relatively unique in that the state uses the services of a Friend of the Court. The FOC is part of the family court division in each Michigan county. Its purpose is to relieve the court system -- and the state’s judges -- of some of the detail work involved in divorce cases. It oversees child support enforcement and helps to implement child custody orders early in the divorce process.
The Conciliation Conference
If you have children, you and your spouse will receive notices from the FOC shortly after one of you files for divorce. The notice schedules you for a conciliation conference. If you have attorneys, most Michigan counties allow them to attend with you. However, the conference is a casual proceeding, so you can handle it on your own if you want to. The FOC referee -- who is a court-appointed attorney, not a judge – attempts to help you reach an agreement regarding custody, visitation and child support. The referee bases child support on your incomes and a court-approved formula. Custody and visitation issues are open for discussion and negotiation.
Stipulated Custody Orders
If you and your spouse can agree on a parenting plan schedule at the conciliation conference, the referee will write up the details and conclude your conciliation process. You’ll sign the agreement and the referee will forward it to a judge for his signature. Your agreement becomes a stipulated temporary court order, establishing custody and visitation terms until your divorce is final, which is usually a minimum of six months in Michigan. "Stipulated" means you and your spouse agree to the terms of the order.
The Objection Process
If you and your spouse can’t reach a parenting agreement at your conciliation conference, the FOC referee will decide a temporary parenting plan for you, based on factors included in Michigan’s legislative code. These factors detail what the state considers to be in the best interests of your children. The referee then sends his recommended custody and visitation order to a judge for signature, and you’ll receive a copy of the referee's decision as well. Depending on your county, you'll have anywhere from 21 to 28 days to object if you disagree with the referee’s custody terms. Even if you object, however, you must adhere to the terms of the order until the court schedules a conciliation hearing.
The De Novo Hearing
Unlike the original conciliation conference, a conciliation hearing -- also called a de novo hearing -- is a formal court proceeding. In Michigan, this hearing is essentially your custody trial. You and your spouse can present witnesses and documents for the court's review, and you can both testify. Depending on your county, you may end up back with the FOC referee for this hearing, or it might be held in front of a judge. If the referee hears it, he will again decide your custody issue after listening to all the evidence and again send a written order to you, your spouse and the judge. Under Michigan law, the judge does not have to try custody issues all over again when and if you proceed to trial to resolve other issues of your divorce. He can base his final custody decision on the referee’s de novo order.