When “I Do” becomes “I Don’t”

The Michigan divorce process is unique for every family based on the individuals, the circumstances, and the priorities within each family. To help you understand what to expect, we have outlined the following steps to inform you of the legal process and explain how the courts interpret the law. Michigan is a “no-fault” divorce state. This means that it is not necessary to prove that a spouse committed any wrongful acts to be granted a divorce. It is a unilateral decision, so if one spouse wants a divorce, the court will grant it, despite any opposition from the other spouse. A spouse needs to demonstrate to the court that “there has been a breakdown of the marriage relationship.”

1. Determine Eligibility to File for a Divorce

 To file for a divorce in Michigan, you must reside in Michigan for at least 180 days and in the county where the case is filed for at least 10 days. There is also a waiting period for the earliest date a divorce can be concluded. The waiting period for a couple without children is a minimum of 60 days; with minor children, it is 180 days. 

2. File a Complaint

 A divorce begins with a written legal document called a complaint. The person who files is the “Plaintiff” and the other spouse is the “Defendant.” The divorce complaint is filed with the Family Division of the Circuit Court in the county where the parties reside and assigned to a family court judge randomly.  

3. Answer Complaint

After the complaint and summons are filed and served to the defendant, the defendant has 21 days (28 if served by mail or out of state) to file an answer admitting or denying each paragraph in the complaint. Once the answer is filed, the case is contested. If the defendant does not file an answer, an order of default may be entered. The matter then becomes an uncontested divorce case. However, a defendant who is defaulted may decide to retain an attorney and move the court to set aside the default any time before the case is concluded.

A divorce, whether contested or uncontested, is not granted without a final court hearing to determine the truth of the statements made in the complaint. The plaintiff is usually the party that appears for the final court hearing. The defendant is not required to attend the final hearing.

4. A Temporary Order is Issued

If a couple has minor children, and in many cases without minor children, there will be a Temporary Order that determines the arrangement with the children and the finances while the case is pending. This is completed with a court hearing or by agreement of the parties. The Temporary Order usually determines custody, debt responsibility, parenting time, child support, spousal support (if applicable), possession of the marital home, and often restrains the parties from hiding or selling assets. 

5. The Discovery Phase Begins

Once the case begins, the attorneys evaluate what issues are likely to be contested and obtain the relevant facts through investigation and discovery. Types of discovery include interrogatories (questions to a party that he or she is required to answer under oath), requests to produce documents to the other party, third-party subpoenas, depositions (questioning a witness under oath), or requests to admit (asking the other party to agree that certain facts are true).

Attorneys often consult and retain experts such as appraisers, accountants, or psychological professionals when needed. 

6. Begin Negotiations

After the discovery is completed, the attorney will discuss the client’s goals and begin settlement negotiations.  Attorneys will often exchange settlement proposals in writing.  Also, the attorneys may set up a meeting, with both parties and attorneys present, in an attempt to resolve as many issues as possible.  This process is known as an informal settlement meeting, and the court is not involved.  If a settlement is reached, the parties may sign a document containing the provisions of the settlement. 

7. Mediation

The parties may voluntarily agree to proceed to mediation even before the case is filed, or at any time during the waiting period.  The court will typically order every case to be mediated unless there is a history of domestic violence.  If the parties cannot agree to a mediator, the court will assign a mediator.  Depending on the situation, mediation can occur with or without the lawyers present.  Mediation is a non-binding process.  The mediator’s role is to try to facilitate a settlement of all issues.  This avoids court involvement and is less expensive than litigation.  Generally, the parties split the cost of the mediator. 

8. Appearing in Court

Attorneys will attend motion hearings and the settlement conference on a party’s behalf.  The judge may assign a motion to be heard by a referee, an attorney who works for the court and has authority to hear limited types of matters relating to a pending divorce.  A referee’s order can be appealed to the judge within 21 days. 

9. A Settlement Conference is Scheduled

The court will also schedule a formal settlement conference, which both parties are required to attend. The conference attempts to narrow issues such as property division or support.   The attorneys will meet with the judge separately to discuss the issues and seek to obtain an informal decision from the judge.  If they are able to reach an agreement at the conference, the lawyers may put the terms of the settlement “on the record” in court, which means that the settlement terms are recited before the judge and recorded.  After the settlement is placed “on the record,” parties cannot change their minds about the terms.  However, a formal settlement “on the record” does not finalize a divorce.  The divorce is not final until a written judgment is signed by the judge.

If the lawyers and parties are unable to settle all the issues at the settlement conference, the judge will schedule the case for trial.  A divorce in Ottawa or Kent County cannot be scheduled for trial until after the settlement conference occurs. 

10. The Final Judgment of Divorce is Issued

The Judgment of Divorce is the final binding document that grants the divorce. It determines custody, parenting time, child support, property settlement, spousal support and other issues.  Parties will have an opportunity to read the judgment, discuss it with his or her attorney and sign it before it is entered with the court.  If there are child support or spousal support provisions, there are separate orders for those payments.