Michigan courts make all decisions on family law issues by considering the best interests of the child. When deciding child custody issues, they start with the presumption that it’s in the child’s best interest to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents.

As part of this idea, courts look for what they call an established custodial environment. A child has an established custodial environment with a parent when, over a long period of time, the child looks to that parent for basic needs, comfort, discipline and guidance. A child can have an established custodial environment with either or both parents.

The court presumes that stability is important, and so it will not disrupt an established custodial environment with either parent unless it sees new evidence suggesting that doing so is in the child’s best interests. In other words, if the court sees evidence of a strong relationship between the child and one parent, it is going to take strong evidence to convince the court to make any changes that will negatively affect that relationship.

For example, let’s say Ada, age 9, has for the past thee years lived with her mother, Betty, about 75% of the time, and with her father, Charles, about 25% of the time. Betty now wants to move to another town with Ada, which will make visits between Ada and Charles much less frequent.

Betty presents evidence that shows that her new home will be more comfortable for Ada, and that the school in the new town will be good for Ada. This suggests that the new arrangement could be in Ada’s best interests. However, maintaining a relationship with her father is also important.

In such a situation, the court would look to the relationship between Charles and Ada. If it finds that Ada has an established custodial environment with Charles, the court will be very reluctant to sign off on Betty’s proposed new order. If Charles objects to the change, Betty will have to present some more compelling evidence before the court signs off on her proposal.