On January 26, 2023, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued its opinion in the highly contentious case of Hawes v. Cromie, the unmarried parents of a 13 year old son. For more than ten years, the child’s parents have litigated over every aspect resulting in the court noting that:
Throughout the last decade, the parents’ relationship has become so acrimonious that neither the court system nor trained professionals can manage the fallout from the dysfunction.Lenawee Country Circuit Court No. 360951
Mr. Hawes appealed the trial court ruling awarding mother sole legal custody after making a determination of proper cause to review custody.
The key learning is that a trial court must make a finding that there is proper cause or changed circumstances since the entry of the last custody order, prior to revisiting a custody determination. This requirement is found in the Child Custody Act, MCL 722.21 et seq. Specifically, MCL 722.27(1)(c) provides that if a child custody dispute has arisen from another action in the circuit court, the court may
“[m]odify or amend its previous judgments or orders for proper cause shown or because of change of circumstances․”
The case of Vodvarka vs. Grasmeyer informs us that “proper cause” is geared more toward the significance of the facts or events or, as stated earlier, the appropriateness of the grounds offered.
What is sufficient “proper cause” for custody modification?
The Vodvarka court provides the best answer:
“. . . to establish “proper cause” necessary to revisit a custody order, a movant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence the existence of an appropriate ground for legal action to be taken by the trial court. The appropriate ground(s) should be relevant to at least one of the twelve statutory best interest factors, and must be of such magnitude to have a significant effect on the child’s well-being. When a movant has demonstrated such proper cause, the trial court can then engage in a reevaluation of the statutory best interest factors.” .
What “proper cause” evidence is considered for custody modification?
The Vodvarka court once again provides the best answer:
“. . .The phrase “proper cause” is not by the words themselves tied to a change in events as is “change of circumstances.” Rather, proper cause is geared more toward the significance of the facts or events or, as stated earlier, the appropriateness of the grounds offered. However, we believe a party would be hard-pressed to come to court after a custody order was entered and argue that an event of which they were aware (or could have been aware of) before the entry of the order is thereafter significant enough to constitute proper cause to revisit the order.”
On January 21, 2020, Mr. Hawes demanded that the trial court “[m]odify the Custody Order in this matter, to provide Plaintiff Father [Mr. Hawes] with physical and legal custody” and the trial court ruled against him.
The Michigan Court of Appeals correctly noted that to consider a modification of custody, a trial court must first find “proper cause or a change of circumstances” sufficient to warrant a change in an existing custody order. On Appeal Mr. Hawes argued that the threshold requirement of proper cause was not met. However, the Michigan Court of Appeals noted that Mr. Hawes acknowledged the existence of proper cause in filing his motion, therefore “. . . he cannot complain about the lack of such same in contesting the ruling of the trial court.”
Simply put, Mr. Hawes argued the existence of proper cause when filing his motion to modify and after he lost, argued that proper cause did not exist. The Michigan Court of Appeals did not buy his argument.
Preparation is important in every case and experience counts. If you are seeking to modify an existing custody order and are seeking representation, let it be our privilege to help.
By: Daniel Findling
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By: Daniel Findling