Digital Divorce Platforms

Over the past few years, we’ve noted some flashy digital divorce platforms transitioning from beta to the marketplace. These platforms digitize the administrative aspects of divorce and reduce -sometimes even eliminate- the lawyers’ role.

In January, California celebrity divorce lawyer Laura Wasser rolled-out her latest product: an on-line divorce site. It’s Over Easy claims to simplify the divorce process and touts cost containment for California divorcees.

This divorce platform contains useful information, directories for related services and helpful videos for unfortunate couples embarking on the painful process. The price point varies, depending on the product level.

Ms. Wasser is not the first family law professional to this digital party. Five years ago, Wevorce, a self-guided divorce platform now owned by Legal Zoom, launched from the Y-Combinator; a start-up accelerator in the Silicon Valley.

While Wasser’s It’s Over Easy is available in New York and California, Wevorce claims to be available in all 50 states. We here at Clarkston Legal wonder: do these digital divorce platforms really work?

Putting Digital Divorce Platforms to the Test

The simple idea behind the “divorce-by-algorithm” concept is to scale and manage basic family data. These digital divorce platforms embed standardized forms for users; parties enter their personalized data and work through a series of cells on the site.

Even the proprietors of the digital divorce sites admit that “divorce-by-algorithm” is not for every couple. The process takes agreement and cooperation on the basics.

Couples that cannot agree on income benchmarks, the value of major assets and the apportionment of marital debt are not well-suited to this process. Those couples are better served in the family court. Family courts accommodate spouses as adversaries.

Such a process calls to mind the adage: “junk goes in, junk comes out.” For the “divorce-by-algorithm” to work, the parties must work together; they must reach a meeting of the minds on the basic family financial data.

The digital divorce platforms adopt a professional-team approach featured in the collaborative divorce process. When the algorithm identifies a problem, the participants -for a fee- utilize the input of various professionals.

We Can Help

Our conclusion is that these digital divorce platforms can work with the right couples. When a husband and wife agree on a parenting schedule, income benchmarks for support and the value of assets, these websites help ease the divorce process. However, when a divorce couple disagrees about the basic data, they need a family law professional.

If you or a loved one are in need of divorce advice, contact our law office. We offer a free consultation to discuss your personal circumstances and identify options.



When a Rapist Father is Awarded Child Custody

By now, we have all heard about the child custody case in Sanilac County. A family court judge unwittingly awarded custody and parenting time to the rapist father of a minor child.

At first there was confusion about the case; now, the blame is going around. Judge Gregory Ross signed what he described as a consent judgment that awarded father Christopher Mirasolo joint custody of his son, now 9-years old, along with unspecified parenting time conditioned upon the consent of the mother.

Now that Judge Ross discovered Mirasolo’s previous criminal sexual conduct conviction, he rescinded the prior custody order. In doing so, he criticized the prosecutor for not advising him of all of the significant circumstances in the case.

When a mother receives public assistance, the county prosecutor files a support, filiation and custody case against the father. As Judge Ross noted in rescinding his prior order, these support cases usually are routine.

For her part, Mother’s lawyer asserts that mother never signed the original order therefore, she did not actually provide consent to the joint custody award. Mom’s lawyer claims the prosecutor railroaded mom on the so-called consent judgment. Now, the mother is calling for the resignation of both the judge and the prosecutor.

Child Custody has been in the news a lot over the past six-months. Just how do family court judges determine custody?

The Child Custody Act provides 11 statutory factors that a judge must consider when deciding a child custody dispute. The 11 “best interest” factors require a judge to consider each factor relative to the best interests of the child.

Certainly, the fact that the father was convicted of raping the mother [and also has a second rape conviction] is a major consideration in the custody determination. In this particular case, however, the judge claimed he did not know these facts about father.

In our family court system, judges do not conduct their own investigations. Rather, judges rely on the litigants to supply them with the facts and legal argument in support of their respective positions.

Here, the prosecutor apparently had some discussion with the mother which led to an understanding that mother was ok with joint custody. Also, the prosecutor included some typically unspecific parenting language: dad can see the child only by mutual consent; if Mom did not agree to parenting time, it would not occur.

Initially, Mom did not have an attorney. Only when Mom cried foul after the entry of the initial judgment and hired a lawyer did this matter blow-up.

Mom’s request for and receipt of public assistance triggered the involvement of the county prosecutor.  The county prosecutor was involved in order to secure child support payments from the father.

While often routine, child custody matters can take on a life of their own; just ask Judge Ross.

We Can Help

If you or a family member have a child custody or child support matter, contact us to schedule a free consultation to review your options.

Oakland County Lawyers


Grandparenting Rights and the Constitutional Interests of Parents

A recently published Michigan Court of Appeals decision affirms that parents have a constitutional interest in raising their children. Statutory grandparenting rights do not trump a parent’s constitutional rights.

Parents vs Grandparents

In some families, conflicts over children arise between parents and grandparents. The Michigan legislature codified grandparents’ rights in a statute that prevents grandparents from being completely cut-out of a child’s life.

All parents are “fit parents”under the statutory presumption. When a parent, “adequately provides for his or her children”, that parent is a “fit parent”.

If both presumably fit parents decide that their children cannot contact the grandparents, then the grandparents are cut-out. For grandparents to prevail in such a situation, a family court judge must find at least one parent unfit.

Court of Appeals Weighs-In, Again

Last month, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed this issue in Geering v King. A finding by the Kalamazoo County Family Court that both parents were unfit, and granting the paternal grandfather’s request for visitation with his grandchildren, was reversed by the Court of Appeals.

The family court found that both parents’ conduct rendered them unfit. In particular, the family court judge ruled that the parents did not properly communicate; were poor co-parents; meted out inconsistent discipline; and undermined each other to the four children.

Legal Analysis of Parenting Time

The Court of Appeals reversed the family court’s decision as, “against the great weight of the evidence”. Writing for the appellate court, former Oakland County Circuit Judge Colleen O’Brien stated:

While we acknowledge that, like most, if not all, parents, Geering and King are not perfect, it is our view that the record before us simply does not support a conclusion that either parent failed to adequately care for his or her children. The circuit court’s analysis largely focused on the parents’ failure to resolve various parenting issues during the contentious proceedings that took place both before and after the parents’ divorce.

Specifically, the circuit court pointed to the parents’ ”inconsistency in discipline, the inconsistency in communication, the inconsistency in co-parenting, and not fostering the relationship with the other parent.” However, as the circuit court expressly acknowledged, the parents’ relationship has significantly improved since they resolved the remaining custody and parenting-time issues while this motion was pending. Indeed, as the trial court recognized, the record reflects that there was “improvement between mom and dad,” that “they [were] both starting to mature and get established,” and “that the children are doing well academically and emotionally and . . . have witnessed their parents being respectful and pleasant for each other.”

This published case does not create new rights so much as it clarifies the provisions of the grandparenting statute. If the parents disagreed on allowing grandparenting time, the grandparents would have had a claim.

In this case, both parents filed a joint affidavit opposing the grandfather’s visitation request. In the end, this made the difference according to the Court of Appeals’ analysis.

We Can Help

The constitutional basis adopted by the Court of Appeals in finding for the parents is jurisprudentially significant. The panel held that fit parents have a constitutional right to make decisions about the care, custody and management of their minor children.

If you have grandparent visitation issues, contact our law firm for a free consultation to discuss your options.

Oakland County Lawyers


Child Custody Motions Must Be Properly Labeled

The Michigan Court of Appeals has considered a number of family law cases this term, including the case of John Lieberman and Kimberly Orr. The Court of Appeals was forced to answer the Shakespearean question, “What’s in a name?”

As it turns out, a rose by any other name remains a rose. In this case, a change in custody is a change in custody, even if the parent requesting it purports to only be changing parenting time.

John and Kimberly Lieberman divorced in 2008. [Explaining the procedural history of their divorce and subsequent custody litigation would take more time to read than the War and Peace, so we’ll spare you the grief.] It is enough to say that by the time the motion that is the subject of this appeal was filed, John and Kimberly were veterans of the family court system in multiple counties.

In May 2016, John filed a motion to “modify parenting time and change schools“. At the time, the parties had joint legal custody of the children, and Kimberly had primary physical custody. John had parenting time three weekends out of each month, and had parenting time for all but the first and last weeks of summer vacation. Various allegations were made, but the trial court, in granting John’s motion, relied heavily on the youngest child’s poor academic performance and minor hygiene issues while in Kimberly’s care.

The factual arguments advanced in the case are fairly straightforward; the family court judge applies those facts to the statutory “best interest” factors. Before arriving at that point, however, the trial court judge must first make a series of threshold determinations.

When a party seeks to modify a pre-existing parenting order, as John did in filing his motion, they must show either proper cause or a change in circumstances. Adding to the complexity, proper cause or change in circumstances take on different meanings depending on whether the parent is requesting a change in custody or simply a change in parenting time.

The courts recognize that changes in parenting time are often necessary as a child grows older, parents experience job changes, etc. For that reason, the threshold for requesting a change in parenting time is low, any normal life change will suffice.

In addition to enjoying a lower threshold, motions to change parenting time also have a lower standard of proof. The moving parent must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the change is in the best interest of the child.

A change in custody is a major disturbance in the life of a child, and as such, must meet a higher threshold and a higher standard of proof. A parent seeking to change custody must show that a major change has occured that will have an effect on the minor child. For a court to issue an order that changes custody or the established custodial environment it must find that a major change has occured and that the proposed change is in the best interest of the child by clear and convincing evidence.

The Child Custody Act defines the established custodial environment as the home or homes where “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 trial court granted John’s request and entered an order changing the parenting time schedule and allowing him to enroll the children in a new school. In making its ruling, the trial court held that it was a motion to change parenting time and that the lesser standard, preponderance of the evidence, applied.

Kimberly appealed the family court to the Court of Appeals; that was not persuaded by John’s argument that the motion sought only to change parenting time. The opinion, published on March 7, 2017, held that the proposed change constituted a change in physical custody, thus triggering the increased threshold and heightened standard of review.

In its opinion, the Court of Appeals went further and stated that the heightened standard and threshold should have been used even if the proposed change was only a modification in parenting time because of the change to the established custodial environment.

For us family law practitioners, this means that how motions are titled does matter. Lawyers practicing in family law can no longer masquerade a custody motion in the cloak of a parenting motion.

If you or a family member have a custody or parenting time issue, contact our law firm to schedule a free consultation.

Oakland County Lawyers


Tri-Custody: Shared Custody with Three Parents

What is Tri-Custody?

Shared custody arrangements often arise in some non-traditional families. For example, a tri-custody arrangement is a child custody arrangement between three people: a father, his wife and the biological mother of the minor child.

Here in Michigan, the applicable child custody statutes narrowly tailor the rights of third parties to minor children. An open question at common law is where a non-biological parent, a mother-figure, has standing to bring a shared custody cause of action.

Strange Case in a New York Family Court.

In a case from Suffolk County, New York, plaintiff, the non-biological, non-adoptive “parent” sought tri-custody of a 10-year old boy. She helped raise the boy with his father, her husband. You might wonder how folks get into such unconventional relationships.

A bench trial demonstrated that a married couple invited one of Wife’s friends to move into their home. Over time, they became a sexually active threesome.

The trio lived as a family unit, planned and had a child with the wife’s friend serving as the biological mother. This arrangement seemed like a reasonable solution to wife’s infertility.

When it all blew-up, wife and her friend tired of husband, and moved-out with the minor boy. Wife then sued husband for divorce.

Somewhere along the way, the wife’s friend brought a custody action against the husband. Her claim was resolved by a joint custody arrangement featuring the boy living with the two women -who remained together- and having liberal parenting with his father.

Family Court Endorses Two Moms and a Dad.

Eventually, wife sued for a portion of the available custody. Wife asserted she wanted a ruling from the family court to protect her in case neither her long-time friend [and now partner] or her ex-husband would allow her to see the boy or to stay in his life.

The family court judge was persuaded by evidence that during the first 18 months of the boy’s life, all three adults taught the boy that he had three parents; a dad and two moms. Each of the three adults held themselves out as a family unit.

In addition, wife asserted that she was allowed by father and the biological mother to serve as a co-equal parent. This was the family arrangement to which the boy had become accustomed.

The family court found that the shared custody arrangement, with contact between all three parents, would serve the boy best in the long run.  In granting wife’s request for shared custody, the court noted that evidence clearly established the boy’s need for a continuing relationship with wife; that relationship should not be dependent on the whims or the consent of father or wife’s friend.

Does a Parent Figure Have Standing to Sue for Shared Custody?

The family court judge concluded the shared custody arrangement was consistent with New York’s marital equality law. Here in Michigan, wife’s standing is a case of first impression.

If you or a family member face an unusual custody challenge, contact our law firm to schedule a free consultation.

Oakland County Lawyers


Child Support Calculator Available On-Line

Used to be that family court litigants, when attempting to accurately calculate their child support, needed to check with a lawyer who owned proprietary software. Those days are over as the DHS Office of Child Support has now put a new child support calculator on-line.

New Way to Calculate Child Support

Here is a link to the calculator, known simply as CALC. This public child support calculator has been used by the Friends of the Court and its staff for a while now. Finally, the calculator is public.

Because child support is calculated through an algorithm, using inputs of the relative income of the parents and the number of overnight parenting sessions in each home, the support obligation should be the same, regardless of what calculator is used.

In the past, various software programs available to attorneys calculated child support in similar fashion. Different programs did yield slightly different outputs.

The CALC program may bring a long-overdue standardization to the process of calculating child support. So long as the inputs are accurate, this child support calculator determines accurate support obligations.

Sometimes, it may be difficult to determine the relative incomes of the parents. This is especially true of self-employed payors.

The public nature of CALC allows a litigant to check their child support obligation prior to initiating a case, or seeking review of an existing support obligation. Agreements between parents should be easier to attain with the availability of this support calculator.

We Can Help

Our staff of lawyers will be receiving training on CALC next week at the Oakland County Friend of the Court. FOC staffers who have been using CALC for some time will present it to members of the family court bar. Lawyers will learn some of the tricks to this software.

If you have a child support case, hit the link above to determine your probable child support obligation.

Oakland County Lawyers


Genesee Circuit Court’s ADAPT Program Gains Ground

On November 14, 2014, Judge Richard Yuille signed an order implementing the ADAPT Pilot Program in Genesee County. ADAPT is the shortened name for a program officially known as Acquiring DNA and Paternity Timely.

This program was designed to quickly establish paternity of children born out of wedlock. It has a secondary goal of reducing the adversarial nature of paternity proceedings. As the primary goal of establishing paternity is to collect child support and provide fathers with parenting time, the program also provides participants with access to the resources they need to successfully raise their children.

The ADAPT program is the brainchild of Genesee Circuit Judge Duncan M. Beagle and John Battles, the Director of the Genesee County Friend of the Court. Judge Beagle has been on the bench in Genesee County since 1991; he was assigned to the Family Division at its inception in 1998.

In addition to his assignment to the Family Division, Judge Beagle also presides over truancy proceedings, and the Family Dependency Drug Court. Mr. Battles has served as the Friend of the Court director since 2006. Prior to that, he represented children in the Family Drug Court, and worked as a managing attorney handling child abuse and neglect cases.

Both men utilized their resources and assembled a partnership that included the State Court Administrative Office, the Office of Child Support, the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office, the Department of Health and Human Services, and Hurley Medical Center.

Hurley Medical Center provided the vital missing component-early access to the parents who would benefit from the program. Rather than waiting until after the child is born, staff at Hurley are able to provide information to eligible participants at their prenatal appointments, thus beginning the process well before the child is born.

This program has been a success. In the first year, more than 500 families met with Friend of the Court employees for educational sessions at Hurley Medical Center. A recently released report indicates that paternity was frequently established when the child was two months old, rather than at age 3, the average age under the traditional system.

Establishing paternity early in a child’s life allows fathers to be involved from the beginning with custody, parenting time, and support orders all entered for the benefit of the child. Studies have shown that parents who have frequent and regular parenting time with their children are more willing to provide support for their children. Establishing custody and parenting time orders as well as a support order increases the likelihood that the parent will pay their child support.

ADAPT also provides for a less adversarial process than the traditional process for establishing paternity. Rather than filing a lawsuit the parties participating in the program sign an ADAPT waiver. An informal meeting takes place approximately four weeks after the child is born where the parties work together with the Friend of the Court, the prosecutor’s office, and the Court to come to an agreement on custody, parenting time, and child support.

If the parties are able to reach an agreement, they are eligible for further services through the program. These services can include anger management, substance abuse counseling, educational services, and job training, all depending on the needs of the parties.

Oakland County Lawyers


When a Divorced Parent Wants to Move Out-of-State

One of the most difficult situations in divorce is when one parent plans to move out-of-state with the children. Without a family court judge’s approval, a change of domicile is disallowed.

Recent Case

Family courts frequently struggle with change of domicile motions. The Michigan Court of Appeals recently published a case that highlights some of the questionable parental decisions that follow in the wake of divorce.

In Yachcik v Yachcik, seven years after her divorce, mother fell in love with and married a man who worked and lived in Pennsylvania.  So she requested leave from the Alpena County Family Court to take her son with her to her new husband’s out-of-state home.

Under the child custody act, a parent cannot move the minor children’s residence out-of-state, or more than 100-miles, without permission of the family court.

Mother’s motion offered the child’s father parenting time consisting of 10-weeks in the summer, Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, and most of the child’s other school-related holidays. At the hearing on Mother’s motion, the usual “better life” proofs were offered to the lower court.

Mother and her witnesses testified that she had a job at a Cadillac dealership waiting for her in Pennsylvania; her son was admitted to the local private Catholic high school; mother would have more resources to allocate to her son due to the savings realized by not having to maintain two separate households, not to mention the elimination of frequent travel.

Unpersuaded, the court denied the motion, but offered mother the same parenting schedule she proposed for father if she elected to move to Pennsylvania without her son. During the hearing, Mother indicated to the lower court that she was moving regardless of the court’s ruling on her motion.

Change of Domicile Factors

Just as in a change of custody hearing, a family court considers a domicile change request pursuant to a series of statutory factors:

  • whether the relocation will improve the quality of life for both child and parent;
  • the degree to which each parent exercises their time under a parenting schedule and the degree to which the relocating parent is moving to thwart the other’s parenting time;
  • if the move is permitted, the degree to which the parenting schedule can be modified to preserve and foster a relationship between the child and each parent; and
  • the degree to which the non-relocating parent is motivated by a desire to minimize his or her child support obligation.

Applying these factors, the family court judge found that while it was clear mother’s life would be improved by the move, her son’s case was less clear. Of significance to the court, the boy had no family or friends in Pennsylvania except his mother. Meanwhile, he had many family members and friends in Alpena.

Court of Appeals Upholds Family Court

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling denying mother’s request to change the domicile of the child. This mother painted herself into a proverbial corner; she took care of her own needs first by re-marrying someone that lived out-of-state.

Family courts must maintain the best interests of the child as it primary focus.

We Can Help

If you or a family member are facing a change of domicile motion, schedule a free consultation with our law firm to assess your options.

Oakland County Lawyers


Michigan Legislature Proposes Parity in Parenting Schedule

Some time ago, Rep. Jim Runestad [R-White Lake] introduced legislation -known as HB 4141– that would create a presumption of joint custody in any dispute between parents. Rebutting this presumption will require clear and convincing evidence that a parent is, “unfit, unwilling, or unable to care for the child.” Parental termination proceedings, for example, would render a person an “unfit” parent. Unless one parent is deemed unfit, joint custody is mandated.

In addition to a presumption of joint custody, the bill proposes a parenting schedule featuring specific and substantially equal periods of parenting time with each parent. The bill also calls for the parenting sessions to alternate; to wit, the so-called week-on-week-off schedule, or the 2-2-3 schedule featuring long 3-day weekends for each parent. Joint custody, the bill confirms, does not obviate the requirement of child support.

While appearing fair-minded at first blush, this innovative bill has attracted much opposition from professional groups. For example, the Oakland County Bar Association registered its opposition in a formal position paper which states:

Mandatory equal physical custody would make the best interest of the child factors irrelevant and treat all families exactly the same.  It would require that both parents live in the same school district or travel distances for schooling, require the children to move frequently from house to house regardless of the child’s preference and allow any parent, including convicted felons, to demand equal parenting time. Requiring a standard of ‘unfitness’ to be found by ‘clear and convincing evidence’ directly contradicts nearly all other provisions of the Child Custody Act.  This bill again attempts to remedy a perceived problem which, in fact, does not exist.  The current custody statute(s) and subsequent case law clearly permits a court to determine when it is in the best interest of a child that joint custody, or equal parenting time, be ordered. 

This bill focuses on the needs of the parent instead of the needs of the children. 

Thus, according to the OCBA and the local family law bar, custody and parenting time cases should continue to be decided on a case-by-case basis. This also was the view of the two recently retired family court judges, Joan E. Young and Elizabeth Pezzetti, based on our firm’s frequent appearances before both jurists.

Languishing in the House judiciary committee over the past two years, it does not look like the bill will acquire the requisite traction to amend the Child Custody Act. This term, however, Rep Runestad is seeking to rename this law the “Shared Parenting Act”. Sponsors of the measure claim that the new law would end competition and alienation between parents by putting the children first.

The family law bar again disagrees. Wayne Family Court Judge Richard Halloran, Chairperson of the State Bar of Michigan’s Family Law Section, testified in opposition to the measure when testimony was taken in committee back last September. Other family court professionals and thought leaders, on the other hand, see the measure gaining momentum.

A resolution was passed at the conclusion of the testimony acknowledging the harm caused to the minor children when a parental relationship is disrupted by the other parent. This is known in the industry as parental alienation.

If you or a loved one are involved in a custody dispute, contact our office for a free consultation to discuss your options.

Oakland County Lawyers


Michigan Supreme Court Considers Parents’ School Dispute

The Michigan Supreme Court addresses a child custody school dispute involving minor children. This post discusses the procedural implications of the anticipated ruling.

For most people, springtime brings warmer weather and melting snow. For family law attorneys, it also brings motions to change the school districts of their children. If filed in the spring, these motions can be resolved before the child returns to school in the fall.

The Ozimek v Rodgers Case.

For the 9-year old son of Vanessa Ozimek and Lee Rodgers, that process has taken a bit longer. The Michigan Supreme Court has decided to hear oral arguments on the application for leave to appeal. The court will hear brief arguments from both attorneys regarding why the issue in Ozimek v Rodgers should be considered by Michigan’s highest court.

On the same day, the Court will also hear arguments in the case of Kimberly and Peter Marik, divorced parents of elementary school children. The parents in both cases disagreed about where their children should attend school; in both cases, the parent requesting the school change lost in the county family court.

The issue before the Supreme Court is not where the child should attend school, but how the Court of Appeals should treat an order regarding changing schools. Specifically, the Supreme Court may decide whether the order resulting from a motion to change schools is an order “affecting the custody of a minor” under the Michigan Court Rules. If a ruling on a change of school district is an order affecting the custody of a minor then it is a final judgment in the eyes of the court and thus entitled to appellate review by right. A fine distinction, but one with significant consequences on appeal.

Appellate Consequences of the Case.

There are two avenues of accessing the appellate courts. The first is through an appeal of right. The right to appeal in domestic relations cases is created after the circuit court enters a final judgment. An appeal of right is protected; the Court of Appeals must address a properly filed appeal of right on the merits.

All other appeals must be first approved by the Court of Appeals through a process called application for leave. No oral arguments are held on the application. Also, the appellate court has broad discretion to accept or reject the application for leave to appeal.

The Court of Appeals has already ruled that the denial of Ms. Ozimek’s motion did not affect custody of the minor child. She is therefore not entitled to an appeal of right. The court reasoned that, while the change affected decision making for the minor child, it did not change the time the child spent with either parent. Thus, the school decision did not affect custody of the child.

While there is a right to appeal to the Court of Appeals, there is no appeal of right to the Michigan Supreme Court. Once the party appealing the Court of Appeals decision files an application for leave to appeal, the Supreme Court has three options. The most common result is denial of the application for leave.

If the Supreme Court decides this matter as a calendar case, expect to see arguments from the Michigan Coalition of Family Law Appellate Attorneys. The family law bar is dedicated to expanding the domestic relations cases entitled to appellate review. The bench is equally dedicated to minimizing that number.

The Court of Appeals cautioned against an expansion of the rule in Ozimek, citing the crushing backlog of appeals.

We Can Help.

If you or a family member has a school-related dispute, contact our law firm to discuss your options.

Oakland County Lawyers