The couple in this case conducted a protracted custody battle over their now 11-year old child. The case features just about every tool available to the family court judge: supervised parenting time; temporary orders; in camera interviews with the child (twice) and evidentiary hearings.
The family court made a series of custody rulings in Father's favor over the years, keeping Mother's custody hopes alive by scheduling review hearings. Father had been awarded sole legal custody and the stated purpose of the review hearings were to determine whether joint legal custody could be reinstituted.
Although the unpublished decision does not contain the underlying facts, the family court judge apparently did not approve of Mother's life style, removing her as a joint legal custodian of her child, and ordering supervised parenting time with Mother.
Over the past seven years, the parents kept filing motions for custody. The lower court flip-flopped on the issue, alternating between temporary orders of sole legal custody to Father; then switching back to joint custody. What troubled the Court of Appeals was that none of the requirements contained in the Child Custody Act were followed.
Before a family court judge changes custody, it must first determine whether an "established custodial environment" exists with either, or both, parents. This term is defined in the custody act to mean:
if over an appreciable time the child naturally looks to the custodian in that environment for guidance, discipline, the necessities of life, and parental comfort. The age of the child, the physical environment, and the inclination of the custodian and the child as to permanency of the relationship shall also be considered.The Eaton County Family Court neglected to make this determination in the case. This is important because a court's determination of an established custodial environment determines the burden of proof which the moving parent must satisfy before a change in custody can be made.
In addition, the Court of Appeals was also disturbed because the lower court failed to make any determination that a "change of circumstances" or "just cause" existed to justify the requested custody modification. Finally, it also reversed the family court because it made no findings of fact based on the 11 statutory custody factors set forth in the custody act.
Often, family courts feel constrained by their crowded dockets and the sometimes "informal" nature of the family court. Attorneys foster this environment by allowing decisions on custody matters without the requisite findings by the court.
This case stands for the proposition that a family court cannot properly change custody without first: determining whether an established custodial environment exists; then determining whether the requisite "change of circumstances" exists; and finally making a factual determination after an evidentiary hearing as to all 11-factors.
The case calls for good lawyering in each and every custody battle, regardless of the court's resources or the resources of the parties.