Michigan Custody Laws May Soon Require Joint Custody, Equal Parenting

Michigan State Representative Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, has introduced legislation that would drastically alter the way in which child custody cases are decided in Michigan. House Bill 4691 passed the House Judiciary Committee on a 6-3 vote in June, with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing.

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In summary, the bill would require a judge to grant joint legal custody and substantially equal parenting time unless a parent can prove, with clear and convincing evidence, domestic violence in the family. The bill creates other limitations such as prohibiting a parent from moving more than 40 miles away from the other parent, and it would give substantial weight to a child’s preference on custody if the child is 16 or older.

In 1988 Michigan created the Family Division of Circuit Court, which assigned a single judge to all legal cases involving a family. The change was intended to lessen the burden of the courts while at the same time allowing for expertise and continuity in family matters. Runestad, however, believes it has led to the unequal treatment of parents (most particularly fathers) by judges who fail to fairly and adequately consider the “best interest” factors under the Child Custody Act.

While it may appear the proposed bill is intended to benefit children, opponents believe it raises more questions than it provides answers, and it favors a small interest group of disgruntled litigants at the expense of the majority of Michigan parents and children. Groups publicly opposing the bill include:

  • The Family Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan
  • American Association of Matrimonial Lawyers – Michigan Chapter
  • The Michigan Judge’s Association
  • Michigan Probate Judges Association
  • The Friend of the Court Association
  • The Michigan Poverty Law Program
  • National Association of Social Workers – Michigan Chapter
  • American Association of University Women – Michigan Chapter
  • Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition
  • Kalamazoo YMCA
  • Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence
  • Michigan Domestic & Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board
  • Michigan Poverty Law Program – Family Law Task Force
  • National Council of Jewish Women – Michigan Chapter

These groups criticize the bill for assuming equal custody is a one-size-fits-all approach. The rule of law in child custody decisions is “the best interest of the child,” but many fear this bill will actually put the parents’ interests first. It could also force the child to publicly choose one parent over another, which could have repercussions far outlasting a custody trial.

“HB4691 will dramatically/drastically change Michigan’s Child Custody Act of 1970. It will set up new standards making the law focus on ‘parent’s rights’ and throw out the ‘child’s best interest’ standards. It sets a presumption of 50-50 parenting time in all cases. It will eliminate 40-plus years of established laws and create a myriad of new undefined legal standards for deciding a custody case,” said a representative of The Family Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan.

The Michigan Poverty Law Program also opposes HB4691 for multiple reasons, including: it presumes equal custody is right for all families, it relies on vague definitions that will create uncertainty and increase the financial burden on families, it provides conflicting definitions of what is in a child’s best interest and it places victims of domestic violence at risk. Further, the group believes that overcoming the presumptions of the bill will be nearly impossible due to the evidentiary burden.

The attorneys at Noud & Noud are following this legislation closely and are ready to provide expert legal representation for their family law clients. At Noud & Noud we are sensitive to the varying needs of each family, and we have worked with many couples to settle in the best interest of their children.

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