Starting A Case

Brooklyn Stephens–(231) 779-9494, ext. 2013

A party who wishes to initiate a court case must comply with Michigan Court Rules and Michigan law. Because domestic relations cases often involve difficult legal and factual questions, people have the option of being represented by an attorney.

If you are interested in contacting an attorney about your legal issue, the State Bar of Michigan Lawyer Referral Service (LRS) can help you find a lawyer in your area. The LRS can be reached at 1-800-968-0738 or by filling out an on-line request. The LRS will provide you with an initial consultation concerning your case, which will cost no more than $20. Payment for any further services will be discussed before charging you.


Plaintiff’s Complaint
A case begins when the person requesting the court’s assistance (the plaintiff) files a “complaint” that asks the court to decide a dispute between the plaintiff and the other party (the defendant). In a domestic relations case, the plaintiff may ask the court to do any of the following:

  • Grant a divorce via COMPLAINT FOR DIVORCE
  • Review the case to determine if an order for child support (including medical support) or spousal support is appropriate
  • Establish paternity
  • Establish custody of a child with one (or both) parties via COMPLAINT FOR CUSTODY
  • Establish each party’s parenting time with a child

The plaintiff must arrange for the defendant to be served with a summons and a copy of the complaint. The summons tells the defendant to answer the complaint. Whenever minor children are involved, or if spousal support is ordered, the Friend of the Court handbook must also be given to the defendant.

Defendant’s Answer to the Complaint
The defendant is allowed 21 days to “answer” the complaint. If the defendant does not answer within 21 days, the judge may enter an order granting the plaintiff’s requests.

Status Conference & Hearing
Status conferences are a process in which an FOC employee assists the parties, usually at the beginning of a case, in reaching an agreement. In the absence of such agreement, the matter is set for a Referee hearing. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Referee will make a recommendation for a court order. For more information, see Temporary & Final Orders.


Start Making It Livable for Everyone

The S.M.I.L.E. Program is a one hour court ordered program that is required for every party involved in a new case through the Friend of the Court office. It is an educational program to provide parents with information about the effects of divorce or separation on them and their children. This program helps parents to better understand how to co-parent and also helps parents to understand the needs of their children during this difficult time in their lives. It also teaches parents what to expect through the court process with their case, providing information about custody, parenting time, and child support.

Children have no control over the process of divorce and separation–as such, they should not be victims. The S.M.I.L.E. Program offers tools to help parents learn how they can best provide a nurturing environment to help their children cope with this process. The goal of S.M.I.L.E. is to turn the attention of the parents toward their children and away from the harmful and destructive game-playing that can occur between them in these situations. With the help of, parents can gain problem-solving skills that can help them become the best co-parents they can possibly be.

S.M.I.L.E. is offered one day a month, at three times that same day for those involved in a new divorce (DM), custody (DC), support (DS), or paternity (DP) cases, at 8:30 am, noon, and at 4:00 pm. If you have any questions about S.M.I.L.E. you may call 231-779-9494, ext. 2013.

Temporary & Final Orders

The court will enter a temporary order with instructions that the parties must follow until a final judgment order (or a modified temporary order) is entered.

Orders (including judgment orders that deal with custody, parenting time, and support) can be changed; but only a court can change an order, the FOC cannot. Normally, a court will change an order if both parties have agreed to the change. Otherwise, a court will change an order only after one party (or the FOC) files a motion and the court holds a hearing on the motion. However, even if the parties agree to change a previous court order, the court and the FOC cannot follow the new agreement until the judge signs and enters a new order that approves the agreement. Sometimes, the law requires the FOC to ask the court to change an order. See Parenting Time Enforcement and Modification of a Child Support Order later in this handbook.

Opting Out of Friend of the Court Services
Parties who agree that they do not need the FOC’s services do not have to use them in certain circumstances. Those who do not wish to utilize such services may file a joint motion to opt-out and, if the court approves the motion, the parties must then deal with each other directly. Before the court approves a motion to opt-out, the parties must file a document that summarizes the FOC’s services and acknowledge that the parties have chosen not to use those services.

If an opt-out motion is filed at the same time as the complaint that starts the case, the court must order the FOC not to open a case file unless one or more of the following is true:

  • A party is eligible for “Title IV-D Services” because the party receives or has received in the past “public assistance” (cash assistance, medical assistance, child daycare, food assistance, or if a child is or was in foster care)
  • A party has applied for Title IV-D Services
  • A party has asked the FOC to open a case file
  • There is evidence of domestic violence or bargaining inequality, and evidence that the opt out request is against the best interests of a party or the child

After a court case has been started and the FOC has opened a file for that case, the parties may file an opt-out motion requesting the court to order the FOC to close its file. The court will issue the order unless one or more of the following are true:

  • A party objects to the closure
  • A party is receiving public assistance
  • Within the past 12 months, a support arrearage has existed, a custody or parenting-time violation has occurred, or a party has asked the FOC to reopen its case file
  • There is evidence of domestic violence or bargaining inequality coupled with evidence that the request is against the best interests of a party or the child
  • The parties have not filed with the court a document, signed by each party, that includes a list of the FOC services and an acknowledgment that the parties are choosing to do without those services

Parties who opt-out of the FOC’s services must administer and enforce the court’s order on their own. To assure a proper accounting of support payments and that they are considered in future proceedings, parties may make support payments through the MiSDU even after an FOC case file closes.

At any time, if a party applies for public assistance, requests any service from the FOC, or requests that the FOC reopen a case, the FOC will reopen the case file. In such situations, the court may request that a party, or the FOC, prepare a written order to reopen the case.

Reconciliations & Dismissals
Not every domestic relations case ends with the parties divorced or separated. If the parties are trying to work out their differences and no longer wish to have an order in their case enforced, they may file a motion asking the court not to enforce the order.

If the parties wish to stop all further action in a case, they must file a proposed order of dismissal with the court and provide a copy to the FOC. In that situation, when the state of Michigan has provided financial assistance to the parties’ children or spouse while the case was pending, the support payer may be required to reimburse any previously ordered child or spousal support to the state of Michigan. This reimbursement amount may be less than the amount of assistance, but it cannot be more.

Before a case can be dismissed, the support payer must pay any amounts owed to the court or the county. If those requirements are met, the court will sign an order dismissing the case.

Paternity Establishment
The FOC cannot help establish paternity. The Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Prosecuting Attorney’s (PA) Office work together to establish paternity. For more information regarding paternity establishment, click here.