One page overview including important definitions

In most cases, until there is a court order both parents have equal rights to custody of their child. This is true even if the child is living with one parent and not the other. This is why the police often will not stop one parent from taking the child away from the other parent if there is not a custody order.

For children born after June 1, 1997 to unmarried parents, the mother automatically has custody if the parents sign an Affidavit of Parentage. In Michigan, the judge can give custody to either parent or both parents. Michigan law does not say that a child should always be with his or her mother. A custody order is supposed to be made in the best interests of the child. A child custody order can be changed by the judge at any time if the court finds that there are good reasons to change custody. A child custody order from one state is good in another state.


Means the right to make decisions about the child’s life like where the child will go to school or what kind of medical treatment the child will have.


Means the right to have the child live with you. When the judge gives sole custody to one parent, the judge means that this parent has both legal and physical custody of the child and that the other parent does not have the legal right to make decisions about the child’s life or to have the child live with him or her.


Can mean many different things. Sometimes it means that the parents share legal custody but only one parent has physical custody. It can mean that the parents share both legal and physical custody of the child. It can mean that one parent has legal custody but both parents share physical custody.


Judges almost always order some kind of parenting time after a divorce or at the request of the parent who does not have custody in the case of unmarried parents.

Unless the court determines that the parent who does not have the child living with him or her is a very bad parent, that parent is likely to be granted some type of parenting time by the court. A very bad parent is one who is likely to physically or sexually abuse the child, fail to take care of the child and meet the child’s needs, place the child at risk through alcohol or drug abuse, or engage in some other behavior that places the child at risk of harm. The child also has the right to visit with his or her parent unless the court determines that time with that parent would be very bad for the child.

        • Specific Parenting Time: is when the judge says in writing exactly when, how, and/or where parenting time will happen.
        • Reasonable Parenting Time: This is the kind of parenting time awarded in most divorces. Whet is reasonable depends on things like how old the child is, where the visiting parent lives and so on. But usually the judge says “Reasonable Parenting Time” to mean either whatever the parents can agree on or if the parents cannot agree, each county has a parenting time policy outlining what is considered reasonable time. Even if the parent has stopped paying child support, he or she still has the right to scheduled parenting time. A parenting time order can be changed by the judge at anytime if there is a very good reason to do it. For more information on custody and parenting time see other materials on this website or contact the local Friend of the Court. A listing of Friends of the Court by county is available on the Midland County website by following "All Other Counties" and then "Friend of the Court Office By Index."

To locate free or low cost legal assistance:

  • Visit the Michiganlegalaid.org home page and search for local assistance by entering your zip code in the box marked “Find a lawyer, organization or related service to help you with your problem.” or

  • Look under "attorneys" in the yellow pages to find your local legal aid office, or

  • Contact the Michigan State Bar Lawyer Referral Service at (800) 968- 0738. 

  • Persons age 60 or older, regardless of their income, may be able to receive free advice from the Legal Hotline for Michigan Seniors by calling (800) 347-5297.

This article appears courtesy of the Legal Services of Eastern Michigan