The Basics of Full Custody in Michigan

By Beverly Bird

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All states base custody decisions on the best interest of the child, but Michigan has gone a step further. It does not leave the definition of “best interest” entirely to the interpretation of a single judge. Michigan’s state code includes the Child Custody Act, which specifies criteria which a judge must consider. Michigan courts generally will not award full custody to a parent unless she meets most, if not all, of these criteria. The state prefers that parents share joint custody whenever possible.


Michigan has no legal definition of “sole” or “full” custody in its legislation. However, attorneys and the courts generally accept that either phrase means one parent has both sole legal custody and sole physical custody of the children. Legal custody means the right to make all important decisions for the children, such as those regarding medical care and milestone privileges like driving. Physical custody means the child regularly resides with that parent.

Child Custody Act

When awarding full custody to one parent, Michigan courts weigh the 12 factors that comprise its Child Custody Act. These include considerations such as a parent’s moral fitness and physical abilities. Michigan courts will consider the “reasonable preferences” of children if they are mature enough to express an acceptable reason for wanting to live with one parent rather than the other. However, a child’s wishes are not controlling, and a judge will only balance this factor with the other 11 criteria listed in the Child Custody Act. One significant consideration is maintaining the stability and consistency of children's lives. If one parent has always cared for them, and if one parent is remaining in the family home where the children have lived all their lives, judges are reluctant to disrupt this status quo and move full custody to the other parent.

Court-Ordered Mediation

Because Michigan favors joint custody, its legal system mandates several opportunities for parents to work out a custody agreement without involving the court. Ideally, the custody arrangement should involve both parents' active participation in their children’s lives. Michigan judges will usually order parents to attend mediation before they issue custody orders. The court might also order a custody evaluation to determine a child’s best interests, and which parent most completely meets the terms of the Child Custody Act. A professional mediator or a friend of the court might conduct such an evaluation. A Michigan friend of the court assists family court judges by investigating custody and visitation issues to look out for the best interests of the children involved, then it makes recommendations to the court.

Visitation and Parenting Time

When a Michigan court awards full custody to one parent, this usually does not mean that the other parent has no contact with his children. Even if he cannot make legal decisions for the children, he will usually have physical time with them, established by visitation or a parenting plan. If parents can’t agree on visitation time, most Michigan counties have “default” visitation schedules a judge may order. Default schedules usually include every other weekend, one weeknight, half of all major holidays and half of extended school breaks. During the times when children are with the parent who does not have full custody, he can make daily, routine decisions for them. He can also usually make emergency medical decisions, if necessary.