Monday, June 2, 2014

What is "Friend of the Court?" What role will it play in my Family Law case?

This article is designed to inform a newcomer to Michigan courts on the role of the Friend of the Court (FOC) in Michigan family law cases. This article is intended to give general background information, and does not substitute for individual legal advice for your particular situation.

 Q: What is "Friend of the Court?" 

A: Friend of the Court is essentially an arm of Michigan Circuit Courts. It is able to do what the court would do, but it (whatever the task is) is instead delegated to Friend of the Court.

FOC is involved in child support, spousal support, child custody, and parenting time. It also enforces orders on spousal support, and child support.

Q: How will Friend of the Court become involved in my case?

A: At any time during a family law case, Friend of the Court can become involved, either through a request of the parents, or at the request of the court.

If a parent begins a family law case (like custody, divorce, etc.), typically a copy of their pleadings is also sent to Friend of the Court, unless the parents decide to "opt out" of the Friend of the Court services (more on this later).

But if a parent has overlooked this, or if a court chooses, it can "send" or refer the parents to Friend of the Court for its services. 

Q: What are the services of Friend of the Court?
A: FOC can be used to review or modify a support case, mediate parenting time decisions between parents, make written recommendations regarding custody or parenting time, enforce an order of support against a payor of support, and so on.

Q: How does enforcement happen? 
A: Enforcement happens when a parent with an obligation to pay becomes behind on payments. At that point, the FOC can send out a notice to the paying parent for a Show Cause Hearing. This notice will tell the paying parent that they are to appear at a specified date and time, and must "show cause" to an FOC case manager - and possibly in front of a judge -- why he or she hasn't been able to pay, and what plans he or she is making to correct that.

At the show cause hearing, the person with the support obligation may face contempt charges (in other words, that person will go to jail) for not having paid support. So be prepared to pay, or to have a good reason (this is the "cause" they are talking about!) if you want to stay out of jail. 

Q: What types of enforcement is available to FOC?
A: What isn't available to FOC as a means to enforce support, is a more appropriate way to phrase the question. FOC is able to attach a lien onto houses, tax refunds (aka "intercept" of tax refunds),suspension of driver's or recreation licenses, credit bureau reporting, contempt (show cause, see above), are all part of the enforcement capability of the FOC.

Q: What does "opting out" of FOC services do to my case? Would that be a good idea or not? 
A: Opting out means that the parties choose to enforce any support obligation privately, and that FOC will not become involved. Whether it is a good idea depends on the individual circumstances in your case (and this article is not intended to substitute for individual legal advice).

Opting out does not mean that there will be no support obligation at all. A case that involves minor children will require that a support obligation will be issued to one of the parties. (a follow-up article on how child support calculations work is coming soon).

Q: How does one opt out of FOC Services? 
A: Parties to a family law case can opt out of FOC services, if they file a motion to do so. They also must complete an "Advice of Rights" form, to show that they are aware of the services, and that they elect not to choose those services. Some counties will require both parties to attend a "conciliation conference" with FOC, which will make sure that the parents do not qualify for public assistance, before the parties can opt out of FOC services.

Q: My income level has changed. Does this affect what I owe (or what the other side owes me)? What should I do? 
A: The parties who are involved in an FOC case are solely responsible for reporting changes to the FOC about their income (gain or loss) to the FOC. And they should do so as soon as possible. Because of the way support is calculated, the amount of support (paid or received) will change determined on income of the parties, amount of parenting time overnights, and other factors (see related article).

It's best to report an income change as soon as possible to FOC, to make sure (if you're the paying party) that you don't start accruing arrears.

Q: I have more questions about FOC that aren't answered here, what should I do? 
 A:  More information can be found at the Michigan FOC website. Also, feel free to contact me, or leave a question on this blog.

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