Divorce and Separation can be a difficult and painful time for you, your spouse, and your children. At the Law Firm of Foster & Harmon P.C., our experienced Lansing divorce attorneys and Lansing family law attorneys will assist you through this difficult process.
A Lansing divorce attorney at Foster & Harmon P.C. will make every effort to help you smoothly get through this difficult period, by providing you with the knowledge and experience necessary to make informed and wise decisions throughout the divorce process. We have handled hundreds of Lansing Divorce cases and are ready to help you.
At the law firm of Foster & Harmon P.C., located in East Lansing, MI, our family law attorneys and divorce attorneys have handled hundreds of cases, from the simple to the complex, and we do so in a compassionate and empathetic manner. Our attorney’s intellectual expertise will arm you with the knowledge and confidence you need to move forward with your life, and to help guide you through the legal process.
We recognize that divorce is about the change that you, your spouse, and your children will experience, and as such there are often many questions due to the uncertainty of your future. We will help you answer questions such as; will I be able to support myself? Where will the children live? How will our debt be paid? How will we divide our assets? In East Lansing our divorce and family law attorneysunderstand the maze of questions that you have and will help guide you through that maze by providing you with answers to those questions. We understand that the outcome of your divorce will affect the quality of life for you and your family.
The following is meant as a guide to answer some of your questions, but for more specific answers to your particular situation, please contact us by email or phone at 517.337.4600.
- How to prepare before filing for divorce
- How to start the divorce process
- Divorce grounds
- Divorce residence requirements
- How to start the divorce process
- Filing an answer
- Temporary restraining orders
- Friend of the court conciliation & temporary custody orders
- Friend of the court referee process
- De Novo hearings before the judge
- The discovery process & preparing for trial
- Settlement discussions & property division
- Final judgment of divorce
- Pro confesso hearing, or pro con
How to Prepare Before Filing for Divorce
Often clients ask what they should do to prepare for filing for divorce in Michigan. The following is a list of things that you should consider doing before you or your spouse file for divorce. This list is intended to be a guide, and not as legal advice specific to your case. You should contact a Michigan divorce lawyer at Foster & Harmon, if you have specific questions about how to prepare before filing.
- You should keep copies of important records and documents. As soon as you can copy records such as tax returns, financial statements, bank records, retirement plans, deeds, insurance policies, property tax statements, and check registers. You may want to obtain a safe place outside the home to keep your copies such as a safe deposit box at a bank.
- You may want to obtain a post office box for your own mail if you and your spouse continue to reside together and you are concerned that your spouse will interfere with your mail.
- Review the mail that comes to the home, looking for information that may be helpful such as credit card statements, insurance information, financial statements, etc.
- Start a Journal, and detail the marital history, such as important dates, purchase of large assets, etc. If you think that custody may be an issue, start a daily journal showing what you do each day as far as providing for your children.
- Make a list of all assets and liabilities to prepare you for your meeting with your lawyer.
- Inventory your personal property located within or about the home, by making a list and documenting with pictures or video tape. Be specific and go room by room. If property later is missing, there will be documentation available to hold your spouse accountable.
- To establish credit, obtain a credit card in your own name. If you have been turned down, start with a credit card at a local retailer, and charge a few small items and pay them off. This will help you expand your credit. It is often easier to obtain credit while you are married as opposed to being single.
- Order a credit report. You are entitled to one free report each year. You can go on line and obtain one. It is important to know what debts your name appears on as a responsible party.
- Do not create any additional joint indebtedness, such as home equity loans, new credit card accounts, etc. When you are close to separating or filing, close out all joint credit card accounts and try to separate out your debt. If you can, pay off with joint funds any debt that is in your name only in order to protect your credit rating.
- You should also close out any joint checking or savings accounts, and create new separate accounts. You may want to take out your half of any joint funds to be held in your name only. However, you may later have to account for these funds, so don’t spend it unless absolutely necessary.
- Start to set money aside for hiring an attorney, rent, or any other expense that may be necessary as a result of an impending divorce or separation.
- Before you separate, use joint funds to repair your car or home, to obtain medical or dental treatment, or to purchase necessary items for you or the children. After your separation, you may have to pay these expenses on your own.
- If there are any special items of personal property that are not replaceable, such as pictures, jewelry, collectibles, or items of sentimental value, consider removing them to a safe place.
- If you have information about your spouse that you intend to use later, such as incriminating e-mails, letters, pictures, etc., keep these items in a safe place outside the home.
- If you have received or are about to receive an inheritance, keep the funds separate. Do not use the funds to pay off joint debt, and do not commingle the funds in a joint account.
- If you can, delay receiving a bonus or increase in pay until after the divorce is final.
- Make a list of your expenses and spending history so that you know what your financial needs will be.
- If you have not been the primary wage earner, consider going back to school or improving your skills. Contact your local community college to see what programs are available. Get a resume together and start looking for employment. It will not hurt your legal position to have employment, in fact it will help by showing that you are making an effort, to demonstrate what you are actually capable of earning, and provide you with overall more financial resources.
- If you have an accountant or financial advisor consults with them. If you are considering keeping the marital home, meet with a mortgage advisor to see if you will qualify for a loan.
- Get support and information from books, support groups, community resources, and counseling if it would be helpful.
- You may want to talk to your spouse about resolving things amicably and such discussions are encouraged, however do not sign any type of agreement without first consulting with a Michigan divorce lawyer. Also you do not want to give away your “bottom line” too soon in the negotiation process. Talk to your spouse and learn about what they want or see as a viable solution, but do not commit yourself to any position.
How To Start the Divorce Process
In Michigan, there are three ways to end a marriage; annulment, separate maintenance and divorce. Michigan does not have what is referred to as a “legal separation”. An Annulment is a request for a court to find that a marriage never did exist because of a fraud or legal impossibility or irregularity, such as bigamy or underage of a partner. An annulment is not granted merely because the marriage is of short duration, although often times the parties can stipulate to an annulment where the marriage is short and there are not assets. A Judgment of Separate Maintenance is procedurally the same as a divorce except that the marriage is not severed. Generally a Judgment of Separate Maintenance is used for religious purposes, or in some cases to preserve medical benefits.
In Michigan, the stator grounds to file for divorce require that there has been “a breakdown of the marriage to the extent that the objects of matrimony have been destroyed and there remains no reasonable likelihood that the marriage can be preserved”. Simply put, Michigan is a no-fault divorce state, so if one spouse wants out of a marriage, they can get a divorce, even if the other spouse does not want the divorce. However, fault is still considered in the overall property division or in the case of alimony, although the degree to which it is considered varies from judge to judge. Our Michigan divorce attorneys can counsel you in what conduct would constitute “fault”.
Divorce Residence Requirements
You or your spouse must live in Michigan for at least 180 days and in the county in which you file for at least 10 days prior to filing. These requirements are not necessary for other types of actions, such as a custody case or child support case, and sometimes, if the 6 month period cannot be met, another action can be filed to obtain necessary court orders, and that case can be merged into a divorce action later on.
How To Start The Divorce Process
One of the spouses must be the first to file. They are referred to as the Plaintiff; however, in most cases there is no advantage to being either plaintiff or defendant other than getting the action started. The plaintiff files a Complaint for Divorce. This document usually contains the information necessary to establish the legal grounds for the divorce. It is not necessary to know exactly what you are asking for as far as custody, support or property division at the time the complaint is filed. Our divorce lawyers will get your initial pleadings prepared promptly in order to expedite the process for you.
Once the divorce is filed, the other party must be notified. This is called “service”. The preferred method is to allow the other party to accept service to avoid the embarrassment of being served by a process server at work. If the other party will cooperate and sign an acceptance that they have received the papers, they do not have to be served by a process server. By signing the acceptance of service all that they are acknowledging is that they have received the initial divorce papers and they are aware that a divorce action is pending. It does not mean that they have agreed to anything that the other party is claiming to be true in the Complaint, and they have not waived any rights to any legal position or argument. Accepting service, as opposed to being formally served, usually will allow the divorce process to start of in a less acrimonious manner, and smooth the way for constructive settlement and resolution of outstanding issues.
Filing An Answer
The party, who either accepts service or is formally served, receives what is called a summons, which notifies them that they have 21 days to file an answer. The filing of an answer prevents a default from being entered against that party.
Temporary Restraining Orders
Often times an order to prevent the disposition of assets is filed at the same time a Complaint for Divorce if filed. These orders are mutual and prevent the disposition or sale of marital assets while the Divorce is pending, while allowing the parties to carry on the everyday required payment of bills.
Friend of the Court Conciliation & Temporary Custody Orders
Also, shortly after the divorce is filed, if you have minor children, the Friend of the Court will schedule a conciliation conference and meet with both parties (usually without attorneys present). This is an informal, yet critical stage of the custody process. It is very important that you are thoroughly prepared before attending this meeting, and our divorce lawyers will take the time to meet with you and make sure that you are prepared for this critical stage. If both parties agree at conciliation, the Friend of the Court will prepare a “stipulated” or agreed upon order. However, you do not have to agree or feel pressured to agree to anything.
If the parties are unable to reach an agreement, a temporary order will be prepared by the Friend of the Court Conciliator based upon the information received at this meeting. Either party, or both, may file a timely objection to the order, but the order stays in place until it is revised by either the Friend of the Court referee or judge.
Friend of the Court Referee Process
If either or both parties file an objection to the conciliator’s order, the matter is scheduled for a de novo hearing, usually before the referee, but in some instances it goes directly to the judge. It is important to know who your judge is, and how these procedures vary from judge to judge and county to county.
Our divorce lawyers will provide you with specific information relative to the judge assigned to your case. Generally, a Friend of the Court referee (who is an attorney not a judge) will hear the case at a “de novo” hearing. This is a hearing that hears the case “brand new” and nothing from the prior conciliation conference will hold over or direct the findings of the referee. This is a formal hearing, compared to the prior conciliation conference, and attorneys are usually involved at this point, and witnesses and evidence are presented to the referee in the same fashion that evidence is presented before a judge at a trial.
The parties are usually called to testify after they have been sworn, and they are subject to direct and cross examination. Often discovery will need to be done prior to the hearing so that the case can be properly developed and presented to the Referee. Again this is a very critical and legally complex stage, and having one of our divorce lawyers represent you is highly recommended. It is important to present your case thoroughly at this hearing as judges are allowed to rely solely upon this record when making their custody findings, and they are not required to hold the hearing all over again. The Friend of the Court Referee will issue an order at the conclusion of the hearing (often times the hearing may take place over several days) and that order supersedes the prior order resulting from conciliation. This order continues in effect until set aside or modified by the judge.
De Novo Hearings Before the Judge
Under Michigan law, you have the right to object to the Friend of the Court referee’s order. However, it varies significantly from judge to judge as to what happens next. Some judge’s merely follow the Friend of the Court referee’s order; other judges will give you a shortened hearing with just argument from the attorney’s, or possibly brief testimony from the parties; and yet other judges will allow or require that the entire process be duplicated before the judge, requiring the presentment again of all witnesses, testimony, exhibits, for a full evidentiary hearing. It is important that you consult with a divorce attorney at Foster and Harmon who is experienced and is familiar with how each county and each judge handles de novo hearings at this stage.
The Discovery Process & Preparing for Trial
Often while the issue of temporary custody is being heard before the Friend of the Court Referee or the judge, discovery requests, either formal or informal will be underway. It is important in developing your case that your attorney knows what information is needed and knows how to gather that information. Our divorce lawyersat Foster & Harmon are experienced in discovering assets and income, valuing property, and presenting a divorce settlement based upon the most up to date and current case law. Often times one spouse is more in control of the financial aspects of the marriage than the other, and this can be a frightening prospect for the spouse who has been “kept in the dark”, or has simply been busy attending to other aspects of the marriage such as taking care of the children.
For the spouse who does not have an in depth knowledge of the financial aspects of the marriage, it is especially important that he or she have an experienced attorney that can obtain this information. There are many different discovery tools available to find this information, ranging from formal discovery requests to informal discovery requests. The type of discovery needed depends on the specific circumstances of the case. Our office is committed to doing exactly the type of discovery needed. The purpose of discovery is for each party to find out information about the other party or about the financial aspects of the marriage. That information can be obtained through subpoena’s, interrogatories, depositions, sworn affidavits, requests for production of certain documents, and requests for admissions. Depending upon the complexity of the case, some or all of these methods may be used. Once the information is obtained, the parties will then try to negotiate a settlement.
Settlement Discussions & Property Division
In any property discussion, there are three general steps to follow. The first is to identify the assets and liabilities, which is done through the discovery process discussed above. The next is to value the assets, which may require appraisals, such as real estate or personal property appraisals or pension evaluations. The third step is to divide the assets, which may require the sale of assets; offset of assets such as trading a pension for the equity in the home; or requiring one party to “buy out” the other party’s interest in the asset.
Generally it is at this stage that the discussion becomes emotionally charged. Having a divorce attorney act as a go between in order to facilitate the early settlement discussion helps keep the discussion on point and reduces the tendency of the parties to digress into other emotional issues. Many times with two experienced divorce attorneys the case can be settled by exchanging information and settlement offers back and forth. If the parties are not able with the assistance of their attorneys to settle the case at this stage, mediation is often used as the next step.
Most judges will require that the parties attempt mediation before going to trial. There is a court approved list of mediators that the parties can chose from, or they can chose someone mutually agreed upon that is not necessarily on the list. However for the judge to order the parties to mediation, the judge must chose from the approved list. An experienced divorce attorney will know a good mediator for your case.
The mediation process is informal, usually less expensive than trial, and most cases settle at mediation. If an agreement is reached at mediation, it is usually reduced to writing and signed by both parties. Once a mediation agreement is signed it is binding and very difficult to get out of if you have a change of heart. Extreme caution should be exercised before signing a mediation agreement, and you should rely upon experienced legal representation before signing such an agreement. For more information on mediation, click here.
Very few cases actually go to trial. However some cases might involve unique or complex legal issues that require a ruling by the judge at trial, or are simply unable to resolve themselves through the other processes described above. Trial is a formal procedure where attorneys give opening statements, witnesses are called to testify under direct and cross examination, exhibits are introduced, closing arguments are given, and eventually the judge will make a ruling.
Once the judge makes his or her ruling, neither party may comment or argue with the ruling, and the only remedy is to appeal the judge if a party is unhappy with the result. It is very difficult in Michigan to have the Court of Appeals overturn a trial judges ruling and the process is very expensive. Absent some unique legal issue, or a major error of law by the judge, you will not likely be successful on appeal. Merely disagreeing with the judges ruling is not enough. As a practical matter you are forced to accept whatever decisions the judge makes about custody, alimony, or property issues. Trial is a very lengthy and expensive process. Most people try to avoid trial.
Final Judgment of Divorce
Whether the parties reach a final decision by negotiating between themselves, with the assistance of their attorneys, through mediation, or by a ruling from a judge at trial, that final agreement must be reduced to a final judgment of divorce. The judgment provides for matters having to do with alimony, children, and property division. There are also provisions in the judgment that are required by law. Having an experienced attorney assist you with drafting the judgment is essential and can avoid post judgment problems due to ambiguities in the language of the judgment itself.
Pro Confesso Hearing, or Pro Con
If the parties reach an agreement and trial is not therefore necessary, after the judgment has been signed by all parties, the Plaintiff must go to court to attend a hearing that is called a Pro Con.
This is a non adversary hearing that is required so that the Plaintiff can put the statutory requirements on the record. This is called “taking of proofs”. It is usually a very quick proceeding, and the judge then signs the judgment, which is presented to the clerk of the court for entry with the court. Only upon entry with the court is the divorce actually final.
Sometimes proofs are put on the record and “preserved” and a signed judgment is later mailed to the court for filing. Again, it is upon the actual entry of the judgment that the divorce is final, and not when the proofs are put on the record. The Defendant does not usually attend this hearing as this is not a contested hearing and thee judge will only enter the judgment as signed by all parties. If your attorney feels it is necessary to attend this hearing, he or she will advise you to do so.
Contact a divorce attorney at Foster & Harmon P.C. today to get a committed and experienced attorney who will handle you divorce or family law issue professionally and with compassion.