STATE OF MICHIGAN
COURT OF APPEALS
MICHAEL ALLEN WILLIAMS,
November 10, 2009
Cass Circuit Court
LC No. 08-000483-DM
LORI ANN WILLIAMS,
Before: Servitto, P.J., and Bandstra and Markey, JJ.
Defendant appeals by right a divorce judgment wherein the trial court awarded the parties
joint legal custody of their two minor children, awarded plaintiff physical custody, divided the
marital property and debt, and denied defendant’s request for spousal support and attorney fees.
Defendant first contends that the trial court erred in awarding physical custody of the
minor children to plaintiff. In reviewing a child custody decision, we review a trial court’s
findings of fact, including its application of the statutory best interest factors, to determine if they
are against the great weight of the evidence, its discretionary decisions for an abuse of discretion,
and questions of law for clear legal error. Fletcher v Fletcher, 447 Mich 871, 876-877, 879; 526
NW2d 889 (1994). Under the great weight of the evidence standard, the trial court’s findings
will be affirmed unless the evidence clearly preponderates in the opposite direction. Id. at 879.
A trial court’s entry of a custody order involves a discretionary decision that is reviewed for an
abuse of discretion by this Court. Id. at 879-881. “An abuse of discretion exists when the trial
court’s decision is so palpably and grossly violative of fact and logic that it evidences a
perversity of will, a defiance of judgment, or the exercise of passion or bias.” Berger v Berger,
277 Mich App 700, 705; 747 NW2d 336 (2008). A clear legal error occurs when the trial court
“incorrectly chooses, interprets, or applies the law.” Fletcher, supra at 881.
Child custody disputes are governed by the Child Custody Act (CCA), MCL 722.21, et
seq. Harvey v Harvey, 470 Mich 186, 191-192; 680 NW2d 835 (2004). A trial court has a duty
to “ensure that the resolution of any custody dispute is in the best interests of the child.” Id. at
192. A trial court cannot issue an initial custody order without first determining it is in the best
interests of the child. Grew v Knox, 265 Mich App 333, 336; 694 NW2d 772 (2005). In making
this determination, the trial court must consider and state its findings and conclusions as to each
of the statutory best interest factors set forth in MCL 722.23. Helms v Helms, 185 Mich App
680, 683; 462 NW2d 812 (1990). These factors include:
(a) The love, affection, and other emotional ties existing between the parties
involved and the child.
(b) The capacity and disposition of the parties involved to give the child love,
affection, and guidance and to continue the education and raising of the child in
his or her religion or creed, if any.
(c) The capacity and disposition of the parties involved to provide the child with
food, clothing, medical care or other remedial care recognized and permitted
under the laws of this state in place of medical care, and other material needs.
(d) The length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment,
and the desirability of maintaining continuity.
(e) The permanence, as a family unit, of the existing or proposed custodial home
(f) The moral fitness of the parties involved.
(g) The mental and physical health of the parties involved.
(h) The home, school, and community record of the child.
(i) The reasonable preference of the child, if the court considers the child to be of
sufficient age to express preference.
(j) The willingness and ability of each of the parties to facilitate and encourage a
close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other
parent or the child and the parents.
(k) Domestic violence, regardless of whether the violence was directed against or
witnessed by the child.
(l) Any other factor considered by the court to be relevant to a particular child
custody dispute. [MCL 722.23.]
On appeal, defendant contends that the trial court abused its discretion in entering the
custody order because several of its factual findings with respect to the best interest factors were
against the great weight of the evidence. Defendant specifically challenges the trial court’s
findings with respect to factors (a), (b), (c), (d), (e) and (f).
The trial court weighed factor (a) equally between the parties, and we conclude that the
trial court’s findings were not against the great weight of the evidence. Fletcher, supra at 879.
Plaintiff was involved with the children from the time of their birth, and witnesses who observed
his interaction with them testified he was a good parent. Plaintiff remained actively involved in
the children’s schooling, helped coach their soccer teams, and brought them to counseling
sessions to help them adjust to the divorce. After conducting several therapy sessions, Dr. Marc
Milhander, PhD, a clinical psychologist, testified that the “overriding portion of plaintiff’s
mental state is the welfare of his children.” In addition, the trial court met with the children in
chambers and stated that the children loved and were affectionate toward both parents. While
defendant was the children’s primary caregiver for the predominant part of their lives, beginning
in 2007, defendant left the marital home and children on multiple occasions. The record does not
“clearly preponderate in the opposite direction” of weighing this factor equally between both
parties. Fletcher, supra at 878. Certainly, the record does not reflect that defendant’s love,
affection, and emotional ties are greater than plaintiff’s where the children are concerned.
The trial court also weighed factor (b) in favor of plaintiff, and we conclude that the trial
court’s findings were not against the great weight of the evidence. Record evidence shows that
defendant’s commitment to the children and family unit conflicted with her relationship with an
individual named Trevor Strain beginning in late 2007. Defendant brought stress and tension
into the family unit by engaging in relationships with other men, and she was dishonest regarding
her whereabouts and contacted friends to help her conceal her behavior. She also engaged in
acrimonious behavior directed at plaintiff when, among other things, she took his pickup truck
and cursed at him in the children’s presence; she failed to attend scheduled counseling sessions
or obtain other counseling; and she violated a court order by allowing Strain to have contact with
the children during her parenting time visits before attempting to conceal her actions by telling
the parties’ son, a nine-year-old child, that she would go to jail if anyone learned of Strain’s
presence. While plaintiff engaged in acrimonious behavior directed at defendant, as well, his
commitment to the children before and during the divorce proceedings supports the trial court’s
findings. Specifically with respect to the children’s education, in contrast to defendant’s
unpredictable behavior, plaintiff was actively involved in the children’s education and he
attended parent-teacher conferences for the parties’ son. In addition, the son’s principal testified
that plaintiff always has his son prepared and ready to attend school and plaintiff testified as to
the schedule he has in place to ensure that both children were ready for school every morning. In
sum, the evidence does not “clearly preponderate in the opposite direction” of weighing this
factor in favor of plaintiff. Fletcher, supra at 878.
The trial court also weighed factor (c) in favor of plaintiff. Defendant did not offer any
evidence showing her efforts to obtain employment, and she quit her job at a golf course after
making two child support payments, which plaintiff returned to her. According to defendant, she
earned approximately $3,506 in 2008. After defendant failed to pay court-ordered child support
during the divorce proceedings, the trial court ordered a show cause hearing. In contrast,
plaintiff is steadily employed, earning approximately $54,000 a year and holds a secure position
where his performance was described as excellent. In making our ruling, we note that it is unfair
to unduly rely on one party’s superior earning ability, Mazurkiewicz v Mazurkiewicz, 164 Mich
App 492, 500; 417 NW2d 542 (1987), in deciding this factor, but the trial court did not give
undue reliance to plaintiff’s income. Rather, it focused on defendant’s complete lack of effort to
try and provide for the children. In sum, the trial court’s findings with respect to this factor are
not against the great weight of the evidence. Fletcher, supra at 879.
The trial court weighed factor (d) in favor of plaintiff, and we conclude that the trial
court’s findings are not against the great weight of the evidence. Id. Beginning in 2007
defendant began taking extended trips away from the marital home and became involved in a
questionable relationship while plaintiff continually remained at the home and worked to provide
for the family. With respect to the stable and satisfactory lifestyle plaintiff provides, plaintiff
helped provide an environment of continuity in Dowagiac for the children, where they received
an education and were involved in sports. He established a daily routine that accommodated the
children’s school schedules and his own work schedule. Defendant’s unpredictable behavior
during the time period leading to the divorce evidenced instability. On this record, the evidence
does not “clearly preponderate in the opposite direction” of the trial court’s finding in favor of
plaintiff with respect to this factor. Fletcher, supra at 878.
With respect to factor (e), which was also found to favor plaintiff, our Supreme Court
explained, “the focus of factor e is the child’s prospects for a stable family environment.”
Ireland v Smith, 451 Mich 457, 465; 547 NW2d 686 (1996). In a footnote the Court stated,
“[t]he stability of a child’s home can be undermined in various ways. This might include
frequent moves to unfamiliar settings, a succession of persons residing in the home, live-in
romantic companions for the custodial parent, or other potential disruptions. Of course, every
situation needs to be examined individually.” Id., n 9. Here, during the months before the
divorce, defendant engaged in an unpredictable lifestyle where she would leave the marital home
for extended periods of time. Defendant was dishonest and attempted to contact her friends to
help conceal her lifestyle. There was no evidence introduced showing defendant’s efforts to
obtain employment, defendant did not follow-through with her scheduled counseling sessions or
rescheduled parent-teacher conferences at her son’s elementary school, and she quit her job at
the golf course before the end of the golf season. In addition, defendant violated a court order
and allowed Strain to have contact with the children during her parenting time, and she did not
provide evidence as to her expected living arrangement or income for the future. Defendant’s
unpredictable behavior contrasts with plaintiff’s consistent lifestyle where he has worked and
provided for his family while remaining involved in the children’s lives. In sum, the trial court’s
findings with respect to this factor were not against the great weight of the evidence. Fletcher,
supra at 879.
Our Supreme Court has explained, “moral fitness” under factor (f) relates to “a person’s
fitness as a parent.” Fletcher, supra at 886-887 (emphasis in original). In this case, the trial
court indicated that it would not place any weight on this factor and reasoned that it had already
considered the moral fitness of the parties in weighing the other factors. The trial court’s
findings were not against the great weight of the evidence. Both parties engaged in inappropriate
behavior during the divorce proceedings and the children were exposed to some of this behavior.
In addition, it was proper for the trial court to disregard defendant’s relationship with Strain in
applying this factor as the court weighed Strain’s affect on defendant’s parenting in its
application of other best interest factors. See Fletcher, supra at 887.
In sum, the trial court weighed factor (a) equally, and weighed factors (b), (c), (d), and (e)
in favor of plaintiff and the trial court did not place any weight on factor (f). The remainder of
the factors were found to favor neither party or were inapplicable to this case. As discussed
above, the trial court’s findings with respect to the challenged factors were not against the great
weight of the evidence, and we find that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding
physical custody of the minor children to plaintiff. Fletcher, supra at 879-881; Berger, supra.
Next, defendant contends that the trial court erred in denying her request for spousal
support. This Court reviews a trial court’s findings of fact related to an award of spousal support
for clear error. Moore v Moore, 242 Mich App 652, 654; 619 NW2d 723 (2000). “A finding is
clearly erroneous if the appellate court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake
has been made.” Id. at 654-655. The challenging party bears the burden of overcoming the
presumption that the trial court’s factual findings are not correct. Olson v Olson, 256 Mich App
619, 629; 671 NW2d 64 (2003). “If a trial court’s factual findings are not clearly erroneous, this
Court must then decide whether the dispositional ruling was fair and equitable in light of the
facts.” Berger, supra at 727. “The trial court’s dispositional ruling must be affirmed unless the
appellate court is firmly convinced that it was inequitable.” Id.
Pursuant to MCL 552.23 a trial court has discretion to grant spousal support “if the estate
and effects awarded to either party are insufficient for the suitable support and maintenance of
either party and any children of the marriage,” and “ after considering the ability of either party
to pay and the character and situation of the parties, and all the other circumstances of the case.”
The primary purpose of spousal support is to “balance the incomes and needs of the parties in a
way that will not impoverish either party” based on what is “just and reasonable under the
circumstances of the case.” Moore, supra at 654. A trial court should take into account the
following factors when deciding whether to award spousal support:
(1) the past relations and conduct of the parties, (2) the length of the marriage, (3)
the abilities of the parties to work, (4) the source and amount of property awarded
to the parties, (5) the parties’ ages, (6) the abilities of the parties to pay alimony,
(7) the present situation of the parties, (8) the needs of the parties, (9) the parties’
health, (10) the prior standard of living of the parties and whether either is
responsible for the support of others, (11) contributions of the parties to the joint
estate, (12) a party’s fault in causing the divorce, (13) the effect of cohabitation on
a party’s financial status, and (14) general principles of equity. [Olson, supra at
“The trial court should make specific factual findings regarding the factors that are relevant to
the particular case.” Korth v Korth, 256 Mich App 286, 289; 662 NW2d 111 (2003). The failure
to specifically state findings regarding each consideration, however, does not require reversal
where this Court’s “review of the record indicates that we would not have reached a different
result.” Lee v Lee, 191 Mich App 73, 80; 477 NW2d 429 (1991).
We find that the trial court failed to consider some of the relevant spousal support factors
by failing to provide any meaningful analysis. The trial court should have considered all of the
factors that were relevant to the instant case. Korth, supra. Nevertheless, we conclude that the
trial court’s ultimate conclusion to deny spousal support in this case was fair and equitable on the
record, and we would not have reached a different result. Berger, supra at 727; Lee, supra.
In this case, while defendant made significant contributions to the marriage, the trial
court concluded that she engaged in conduct that led to the deterioration and eventual breakup of
the marriage. The trial court’s finding in this regard was not clearly erroneous. Per the trial
court’s judgment, defendant was awarded far less of the marital debt, and assets of $5,000, 50
percent of plaintiff’s pension accumulated during the marriage, and the parties’ GMC Canyon
pickup truck. She is also not the primary financial provider for the children. Further, defendant
is 37 years of age and in good health. The record does not support that she cannot obtain
employment. She failed to present any evidence showing her attempts to obtain employment,
and the record reflects that she quit her job at the golf course before the season even ended.
Thereafter, she did not pay any court-ordered child support. This evidences a lack of desire to
support herself, not an inability to do so. Although plaintiff earns a good salary as a teacher his
financial condition is substantially burdened by the large amount of debt accumulated during the
marriage, and he is primarily responsible for the support of the two minor children. Thus, while
he has the ability to earn more than defendant, the facts and circumstances support the trial
court’s conclusion that, in his present situation, plaintiff is unable to pay spousal support.
In reaching our conclusion, we note that while defendant contends she needs alimony
while transitioning to become self-sufficient, defendant did not introduce any evidence regarding
her plans to become financially independent or obtain employment. Moreover, defendant
testified that she had the ability to obtain the financial resources to buy plaintiff out of the marital
home, which refutes her claim of need. And, the trial court did not foreclose spousal support;
rather, it left the opportunity open for two years if defendant could demonstrate that such support
was warranted. In sum, we find that the trial court’s denial of defendant’s request for spousal
support was fair and equitable under the circumstances. Berger, supra at 727.
Next, defendant contends the trial court erred in denying her motion for attorney fees.
This Court reviews a trial court’s decision with respect attorney fees for an abuse of discretion.
Reed v Reed, 265 Mich App 131, 164; 693 NW2d 825 (2005). “An abuse of discretion occurs
when the [trial court’s] decision results in an outcome falling outside the principled range of
outcomes.” Woodard v Custer, 476 Mich 545, 557; 719 NW2d 842 (2006). Findings of fact in
support of the award are reviewed for clear error, while questions of law are reviewed de novo.
In a divorce action, all “[n]ecessary and reasonable attorney fees may be awarded to a
party to carry on or defend” the action. Stallworth v Stallworth, 275 Mich App 282, 288; 738
NW2d 264 (2007). A trial court may award attorney fees pursuant to MCR 3.206(C)(2)(a), if the
party requesting the fees alleges sufficient facts to show that, “the party is unable to bear the
expense of the action, and that the other party is able to pay.” In this case, defendant failed to
allege sufficient facts to show that she was unable to bear the expense of defending the divorce
case where she did not present any evidence concerning the fees she sustained, and did not show
that she was unable to obtain employment and pay those fees. Similarly, defendant failed to
allege sufficient facts to show that plaintiff was able to pay attorney fees where he became
responsible for most of the substantial amount of marital debt. On this record, we conclude that
the trial court’s denial of defendant’s request for attorney fees did not fall outside “the principled
range of outcomes” and therefore it was not an abuse of discretion. Woodard, supra.
Next, defendant contends that the trial court erred in valuing the marital residence and
adjoining property using the state equalized value (SEV) when both she and plaintiff testified
that the residence was worth more than the SEV value. This Court reviews a trial court’s
valuation of property for clear error. Jansen v Jansen, 205 Mich App 169, 171; 517 NW2d 275
In determining the value of marital property a trial court may consider the SEV of the
home and the testimony of the parties. Lee, supra at 75-76. Also, a trial court “may, but is not
required to, accept either parties’ valuation evidence.” Pelton v Pelton, 167 Mich App 22, 25;
421 NW2d 560 (1988). And, a trial court has great latitude in arriving at a final value when
marital assets are valued between divergent estimates. Id. at 26. “[W]here a trial court’s
valuation of a marital asset is within the range established by the proofs, no clear error is
present.” Jansen, supra. In this case, plaintiff offered evidence of the SEV value of the marital
home. Both parties offered testimony concerning their estimation of the home’s value, but
neither party offered expert testimony. The trial court did not clearly err by deciding to adopt the
SEV value for the marital residence because the trial court’s valuation of the home was within
the range established by the evidence. Jansen, supra; Pelton, supra. As the prevailing party,
defendant may tax costs pursuant to MCR 7.219.
/s/ Deborah A. Servitto
/s/ Richard A. Bandstra
/s/ Jane E. Markey