On December 17, 2019, the Michigan Court of Appeal issued an opinion in the case of Kristina Reslin Farris vs. Eric Daniel Farris. The case examines child custody laws of Michigan after the trial court awarded Kristina sole legal custody and sole physical custody of the parties’ two minor children. Eric had a history of substance abuse having a prior admission for rehabilitation. When Kristina filed for divorce, Eric defaulted, failing to defend the lawsuit.
The trial court adopted Kristina’s request for sole legal and sole physical custody on an interim basis pending a friend of the court investigation on child custody. The Friend of the Court reaffirmed the Kristina’s request for sole physical and sole legal custody and the trial court adopted the recommendation of the Friend of the Court.
Eric filed an appeal arguing that the trial court erred in entering a temporary custody order without making a determination of the established custodial environment. The Child Custody Laws in Michigan provide that the established custodial environment is the parent a child naturally looks to for guidance, discipline and the necessities of life. Although the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the physical custody determination, the appeals court held that the trial court “committed clear legal error by failing to make a statutorily mandated finding regarding joint legal custody.
The Child Custody Laws in Michigan provide that in a custody dispute, a trial court, for the best interests of the child at the center of the dispute, may “modify or amend its previous judgments or orders for proper cause shown or because of change of circumstances.” See: Michigan Compiled Laws section 722.27(1)(c).
The court, however, is not permitted to “modify or amend its previous judgments or orders or issue a new order so as to change the established custodial environment of a child unless there is presented clear and convincing evidence that it is in the best interest of the child. pursuant to the Child Custody Laws in Michigan as set forth in Michigan compiled Laws 722.27(1)(c).
“These initial steps to changing custody—finding a change of circumstance or proper cause and not changing an established custodial environment without clear and convincing evidence—are intended to erect a barrier against removal of a child from an established custodial environment and to minimize unwarranted and disruptive changes of custody orders.” Vodvarka v Grasmeyer, 259 Mich App 499 (2003).
In Pierron v Pierron, 486 Mich 81, 92-93; 782 NW2d 480 (2010), our Supreme Court discussed the next step of the analysis, explaining:
If the proposed change would modify the established custodial environment of the child, then the burden is on the parent proposing the change to establish, by clear and convincing evidence that the change is in the child’s best interests. Under such circumstances, the trial court must consider all the best interest factors because a case in which the proposed change would modify the custodial environment is essentially a change-of-custody case.
The Child Custody laws of Michigan provide for an examination of twelve statutory best-interest factors which are set forth in Michigan Compiled Laws Section 722.23. The twelve statutory best interest factors are:
In Farris case, Eric requested joint legal custody. He testified that he believed that he and Kristina plaintiff would be able to co-parent. However, the trial court did not advise Eric of joint legal custody which was in violation of the Michigan child custody laws. As a result, the trial court’s award that Kristina is awarded sole legal custody was reversed.
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By: Daniel Findling