Frequently Asked Questions about Divorce in Michigan

How does a divorce action get started?

Are there requirements for filing a divorce complaint?

How much does a divorce cost?

How long does it take to get a divorce?

Can one attorney represent both of us?

Does it matter if I move out of the house?

Will I be taxed if I liquidate my share of my spouse’s retirement?

How is property distributed?

Can I also ask the court to modify the property division after the divorce has become final?

How do I know if I will receive or be ordered to pay alimony?

Will I be able to get part of my spouse’s retirement or pension account?

How does a Michigan divorce action get started?

By filing a complaint in the circuit court.

Are there requirements for filing a Michigan divorce complaint?

You have to be a resident of Michigan for 6 months and of the county in which you file for at least 10 days. Either the plaintiff or the defendant can meet this requirement.

How much does a divorce cost in Michigan?

The filing fee for a divorce with minor children is $230, and the filing fee for a divorce with no minor children is $150. The filing fee for a custody action (where the parents were never married) is $150. The attorney fees vary with the complexity of the case and the success of negotiations. Most divorces will cost between $2,500 and $5,000 in any case. A highly contested divorce could cost ten times that ($20,000 to $50,000) or more. That is one of the reasons that mediation and compromise are so attractive. Court appearances alone can cost between $1,000 and $3,000 for one day.

How long does it take to get a divorce in Michigan?

There is a mandatory six-month waiting period to get a divorce if you still have any minor children and a two-month waiting period if there are no minor children (or if you never had children). Sometimes cases take a long time to resolve; however, the Michigan Supreme Court wants the trial courts to finalize divorce cases within a year, but highly contested cases can take longer.

Can one attorney represent both spouses in a Michigan divorce?

Most attorneys will not represent both spouses. It is possible, however, for one of the spouses to hire an attorney and then for that attorney to do the paperwork. The other spouse would just represent himself or herself (which is called “in pro per”) in that case.

The other option is for the two spouses to hire a mediator who would help to negotiate the case. That mediator could then draw up a proposed agreement to be incorporated in the judgment of divorce. Mediators suggest that an attorney review the agreement for each individual party before it is signed.

Most attorney-mediators are familiar with the law that applies to divorces and custody actions, and he/she would probably be willing to explain the options that are available to resolve custody, parenting time, child support, property and debt division, and spousal support issues.

Signing an agreement is not the end of the divorce action. A judgment of divorce must be entered by the court. The mediator may, or may not, be willing to draft a judgment of divorce. If an agreement has been signed, any competent attorney could draft a judgment of divorce that incorporates that agreement.

Does it matter if I move out of the house?

In today’s world, the courts no longer consider a move out of the former home as “abandonment.” If there is a risk of domestic violence or if the children are exposed to considerable conflict, it is better to separate as soon as possible.

Despite the fact that the courts no longer consider it “abandonment” if one party moves out of the marital home, minor children may experience the move as an abandonment. The ideal is to have a written agreement about parenting time or a court order for parenting time before moving out of the house when there are minor children.

Will I be taxed if I liquidate my share of my spouse’s retirement?

You will be taxed at your own rate if you liquidate the account. If this is your spouse’s account, however, you will avoid the 10% penalty if you liquidate the account before you are 59 ½ years old.

How is property distributed in a Michigan divorce?

There are factors that govern the distribution of property in Michigan during divorce:

  1. duration of the marriage;
  2. contributions of the parties to the marital estate;
  3. age of the parties;
  4. health of the parties;
  5. life status of the parties;
  6. necessities and circumstances of the parties;
  7. earning abilities of the parties;
  8. past relations and conduct of the parties;
  9. general principles of equity.

The court starts by requiring the parties to identify all the property of the marital estate. Excluded from that is property that a party owned prior to the marriage and retained in his/her own name as well as gifts and inheritances.

The next step is to evaluate the property. If the property is like-new and recently acquired, then the cost at the time of purchase might still represent the value. Often, the parties can actually agree on a value. Other times, the parties obtain appraisals from third parties or agree to a joint appraisal. If property that is owned individually actually appreciated during the marriage through the active efforts of one or both parties, then the court can include the amount of appreciation but not the underlying value. The parties have to remember to subtract any indebtedness associated with the property and just consider “net value.”

As an aside, if there is a pension or retirement fund that was acquired partly during the marriage and partly before the marriage, the court includes only the portion that was earned during the marriage. This is called the “coverture fraction.”

Some appraisals are a little challenging, as with start-ups or small companies. A certified public accountant is usually engaged to appraise business interests, including stock options.

The last step is to sell or distribute the property. If it is sold, the parties usually split the net proceeds of sale. If it is distributed in kind, then the parties keep track of the value that is associated with that asset to be sure that, in the end, the final distribution of all property and debt is fair.

This approach would not apply if the parties had a pre-nuptial agreement that was enforceable.

Can I also ask the court to modify the property division after the divorce has become final?

The only grounds for modifying a property division after the divorce is final are grounds relating to fraud, mutual mistake, failure to disclose property or debt, and similar issues. Even then, a party has one year at the latest to file a motion to amend the judgment of divorce in most circumstances. If a case has gone to trial and there is a judgment from the court, one option is to file a motion for reconsideration if the judgment is unacceptable. The second option is an appeal to the Court of Appeals, which must be filed within 21 days of entry of the judgment. Timing is everything.

How do I know if I will receive or be ordered to pay alimony?

There are some computerized formulas that attorneys use to get an idea of whether you will owe alimony and if so, how much and for how long. These formulas are not binding on the court like child support guidelines are.

The court considers the following factors in making a decision as to whether to award alimony:

  1. The past relations and conduct of the parties;
  2. The length of the marriage;
  3. The parties' ability to work;
  4. The source of an amount of property awarded to the parties;
  5. The age of the parties;
  6. The parties' ability to pay alimony;
  7. The present situation of the parties;
  8. The needs of the parties;
  9. The health of the parties;
  10. The parties' prior standard of living and whether either is responsible for the support of others;
  11. General principles of equity.

The main purpose of alimony is to balance the incomes and needs of the parties in a way that would not impoverish either party. There is no sense of “entitlement” when it comes to alimony.

If the court decides to award alimony, it must then consider the following factors in deciding the amount of alimony:

  1. The duration of the marriage;
  2. The contributions of the parties to the joint estate;
  3. The age of the parties;
  4. The health of the parties;
  5. The parties' station in life;
  6. The necessities and circumstances of the parties;
  7. The earning ability of the parties.

Some courts are unwilling to award any substantial amount of alimony unless the parties have been married for 10 years or more. Shorter marriages may warrant some form of “rehabilitative alimony.”

In Michigan, parties can agree to an award of alimony that cannot be modified. The court itself cannot put these limits on alimony, but the parties can and then the court will enforce it.

If alimony is “barred” at the time of the divorce with regard to one of the parties, then the court cannot later award alimony to that party.

Alimony is the same as spousal support. The words “spousal support” are preferred these days.

Will I be able to get part of my spouse’s retirement or pension account?

A Michigan court can award the retirement or pension account of one spouse to the other in a divorce using a “qualified domestic relations order” or an “eligible domestic relations order.” This order, signed by the judge, orders the plan administrator to divide the account as instructed (e.g., 50/50) and then the one spouse (e.g., the wife) will become part owner of the other spouse’s (e.g., the husband’s) account. In this example, if the husband cannot draw on the account until he is 55 years old, then the wife must wait until the husband is 55 years old to take her own share. His eligibility criteria applies to her—and it is his age and years of service that count, not hers.

If retirement monies are in an IRA (individual retirement account), a judgment of divorce with specific terms can be used to distribute the IRA.

Are there ways to keep the cost of my case down?

There are ways to contain that cost of a divorce, including the following:

  1. Gather as much information as you can yourself and provide that to your attorney. This information includes without limitation recent tax returns, bank statements, appraisals (if any), real estate closing packages for property still owned, estate planning documents, SEV statements for real estate, car titles, deeds, W-2’s, credit card statements, retirement account statements, and the like.
  2. Consider the factors relating to custody, support, and property division when negotiating these issues and be realistic when you make or consider a settlement offer.
  3. Do not expect your attorney to be your therapist. If anger, grief, anxiety, or other emotion is interfering with your ability to participate in a custody action or divorce proceeding, consider getting some therapy where those issues can be addressed.
  4. Make your interaction with your attorney or members of the “team” meaningful and productive by setting up an agenda and staying on topic. Make a list of questions you have and send that to the attorney or team member prior to the meeting.
  5. Respond to requests for information timely, whether they are requests from an opposing party or attorney--or a request from your own attorney.
  6. Don’t “act out” by saying and doing things that will complicate your case or reflect poorly on you. In today’s world where “evidence” includes emails, texts, and pictures, it is likely that a judge will discover, see, or hear what you did.
  7. Don’t believe everything you hear. Some information is reliable and irrebuttable. Other times, what may be presented as “information” is incorrect, only partially true, and/or outright gossip. Try not to react to anything you hear without consulting your attorney first.
  8. Don’t rely too much on what happened in someone else’s case. First of all, their case is not your case. Second, most of the time cases are resolved with a consent agreement. As a result, many people who are unhappy with the outcome in their cases are actually people who agreed to that outcome.
  9. Don’t publicly disparage your spouse or the other parent. This will get back to him/her and just create resentment and possible retaliation. It will not be appreciated by the evaluators in your case or the court.
  10. Don’t file for a PPO, call the police, or contact CPS without reason. If a court believes that you have filed a false report or are using the system for a tactical advantage, there could be major fall-out for you—especially if your call to the police did not result in a conviction, or CPS does not substantiate your complaint, or the court denies the petition for a PPO or later sets it aside.
  11. That said, don’t hesitate to call the police or CPS if you have a valid reason to do so. Go to Safe House if you need shelter or counseling. Get a PPO if you need one. If there is some time to think this through, it would be advantageous for you to talk to your attorney or therapist before taking action. Further, few people will fault you for leaving an uncomfortable or dangerous situation.