Effective January 8, 2010, MCL 552.505(3) was amended to permit Friend of the Court offices to charge parties an amount for the expense of conducting a custody or parenting time investigation, when a party requests one, pursuant to standards issued by the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO). The following includes excerpts from the SCAO memorandum establishing the standards for charging a party for the FOC’s expense of conducting an investigation ordered under MCL 552.505(1)(g).
1. When a dispute involving custody or parenting time issues exists in a domestic relations matter, the court may order the Friend of the Court (FOC) office to investigate the relevant facts and make a written report and recommendation to the parties and to the court. MCL 552.505(1)(g).
2. MCL 552.505(3) permits the FOC office to charge parties in a dispute an amount for the expense of conducting an investigation and making a report, and outlines several parameters regarding the amount that an office may charge.
a. An office may only charge for its expenses pursuant to standards prescribed by the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO).
b. An office cannot assess an amount to the parties unless a party requests an investigation.
c. The amount assessed cannot exceed the office’s expense to conduct the custody or parenting time investigation and make the report and recommendation ordered under MCL 552.505(1)(g).
d. If the court waives or suspends fees in a case due to indigence or inability to pay, the office shall not charge for its investigation. If the court orders partial waiver or suspension of fees in the case due to indigence or inability to pay, the office shall reduce the amount charged.
e. If the court determines that a party’s request for an investigation was frivolous, the court may order that the amount be charged only against the requesting party.
f. Monies collected for an office’s expenses to conduct investigations must be deposited into the friend of the court fund.
3. The term “investigation” means the work and processes used to find information and to make a written report and recommendation to fulfill FOC duties under MCL 552.505(1)(g). The term “office” means the local friend of the court office that conducts an investigation.
1. Local Administrative Order Required
a. To establish procedures governing charges for FOC investigation expenses, each circuit must adopt a local administrative order (LAO) pursuant to MCR 8.112(B) that conforms with SCAO model LAO 34 - Friend of the Court Investigation Expenses.
b. An office may only charge amounts for an investigation as permitted by the LAO approved by the SCAO.
2. Investigation Requested
a. The office may only charge an amount if a party requests an investigation. Before the office can assess charges for its expenses, any party or a party’s attorney must expressly request an investigation. Because the court may order an investigation without either party requesting it, the office cannot infer a request based solely on a motion to change a custody or parenting time order or upon a contested dispute.
b. The office must base its determination of a request for investigation on an express statement in a pleading or on the record, a signed document requesting an investigation filed with the office, or a finding by the court that a party requested an investigation.
3. Amounts Charged
d. An office cannot charge the parties if the court waives or suspends fees in that case because of inability to pay or indigence. The office must reduce the amount charged on a case and to a party if the court waives or suspends any portion of a party’s fees because of inability to pay or indigence. If the court partially waives or suspends fees in a case, unless otherwise ordered by the court the office must reduce its charges.
e. The court may direct an office to charge reduced amounts based on a party’s limited ability to pay.
f. Unless permitted by statute or court rule, the court may not charge or collect any other fee or amount for the office conducting an investigation.
5. Completing Investigations
Once ordered to conduct an investigation, unless a subsequent order terminates it, the office must timely complete its work and submit a report to the court and parties, regardless of whether a party pays the amount charged.
As with any concern about office operations, any party with a complaint regarding a office’s practices or procedures for charging for its investigation expenses may file a grievance pursuant to MCL 522.526.