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Friend of the Court Overview

Contents

    What Is the Friend of the Court and What Does It Do?

    The Friend of the Court (FOC) assists the court with custody, parenting time, and child support issues. Among other things, the FOC:

    • Investigates and makes recommendations about custody, parenting time, child support, and medical support;

    • Helps parents settle disputes during and after their case;

    • Makes sure parents obey court orders about custody, parenting time, and child support;

    • Gives people court forms for some family law issues. You don’t need a lawyer to use these forms.

    Can the Friend of the Court Make Orders in My Case?

    No. Although a judge may consider a FOC recommendation, the judge does not have to follow it.

    You may be able to opt out of FOC services if both parents agree to opt out. Read more about opting out below.

    Conciliations, Investigations, Recommendations, and Temporary Orders

    Some FOC offices use a process called conciliation near the beginning of a divorce or custody case. During conciliation, an FOC employee meets with the parties. The goal is to help them agree on custody and parenting time arrangements, and/or to calculate child support.

    Sometimes the parties don’t reach an agreement during conciliation. Then, the FOC employee may make a recommendation for a temporary custody, parenting time, and child support order. The child support recommendation is based on the parties’ financial information and the number of parenting time overnights. This recommended order usually becomes a court order unless one of the parties objects. To learn more about how child support is calculated, read Child Support in a Nutshell

    The court may also order the FOC to do an investigation in your case. An investigation is different from conciliation because the FOC worker tries to determine what the best custody and parenting time arrangements are. The worker is not necessarily trying to get the parents to agree. The worker may also calculate child support.

    The FOC worker may talk to other people who have information about your children. This could include teachers, friends, and relatives. The FOC worker may also interview your children. The FOC report will often include a child support recommendation.

    If a FOC report and recommendation are issued in your case, both parents will get a copy. You will have the chance to file an objection to the recommendation. If one or both parties object, the court usually holds a hearing to get more information. At the hearing, the parties can tell the court what they think it should do. The court considers the FOC report and recommendation and may give them great weight. However, the court is not bound by the recommendation and may reach a different decision on some or all of the issues.

    The court may enter temporary custody, parenting time, and child support orders in your case. These orders normally last until the parties can present evidence and arguments at a more detailed hearing. Temporary orders may get entered after conciliation, an FOC investigation, or a hearing in front of the judge.

    Referee Hearings

    Sometimes the court refers issues to a Friend of the Court referee for a hearing. A referee hearing is like a trial, but it is less formal. There is no judge and the referee runs the hearing.

    The issues that referees can hear are different in each county. Some issues that referees can cover include:

    • Enforcement of child support and parenting time
    • Motions for temporary custody and support
    • Motions for a change of custody or parenting time
    • Motions to revoke paternity

    After a hearing, the referee will make a written recommendation to the court, which normally becomes an order unless one or both parties file an objection. Objections are heard by the judge, usually in a more formal hearing process.

    Even though a referee hearing may not be as formal as a hearing in front of a judge, it is just as important. If you would want a lawyer to go in front of a judge, you should have a lawyer for a referee hearing. After the referee issues a written recommendation, you will have an opportunity to object to it in writing before it becomes an order. You can use the Objection to Referee's Recommended Order form to do this. You must file your objection within 21 days after the recommendation is served. If you file an objection on time, you will have a hearing in front of a judge.

    Although you can object to a referee recommendation, the judge can prevent you from giving evidence that you had the chance to present to the referee. The judge can also limit the objection hearing based on what your written objection says. These are both reasons you may want to consider hiring a lawyer.

    You can use Find a Lawyer to look for legal help in your area. If you need a lawyer and are low-income, you may qualify for free legal help. 

    Enforcement

    The FOC provides enforcement services on all existing custody and parenting time orders. The FOC must start the enforcement process if either party files a written complaint about a custody or parenting time violation. If the FOC determines there has been a violation, it will take enforcement action. This could include:

    • Applying makeup parenting time
    • Filing a motion to change parenting time
    • Starting contempt proceedings against the violating parent
    • Other remedies

    The FOC also provides enforcement services for child support orders. Some of the enforcement methods that the FOC may use are:

    • Income withholding
    • Intercepting state and federal tax refunds
    • Suspending driving, occupational, sporting, and/or recreational licenses
    • Contempt proceedings

    Mediation Services

    Mediation occurs when a neutral person (the mediator) meets with both parties to help them settle issues they don't agree on. The FOC in your county may provide services to mediate custody and parenting time disputes. The services are voluntary and confidential. If you do not reach an agreement with the other parent of your child, the FOC does not recommend anything to the court. If you do agree, the agreement can be made a court order.

    Mediation is usually not recommended in cases involving domestic violence. For mediation to be helpful, there must be a balance of power between the parties. Both people must be able to speak freely and not be afraid or intimidated. Threats, fear, and control are common with domestic violence and won’t help you reach a fair and acceptable agreement. Mediation may be a very bad idea if you are a survivor of domestic violence and you don’t have a lawyer.

    Opting Out of Friend of the Court Services

    Opting out of FOC services means the FOC will not be involved in your case, and you will not receive any of the services the FOC provides. If you opt out of FOC services, parenting time or child support disagreements will be heard by a judge in a longer and more formal process. Also, the FOC will not help enforce child support that builds up during the opt-out period. If you opt out of FOC services and the other parent doesn’t pay your child support, the FOC won’t help you collect what you are owed.

    You must qualify to opt out in order for the court to let you do so. The requirements to opt out depend on whether the FOC has already opened a case in your family court action. If you do not have a judgment or final order in your case, and if no support order has been entered, it is likely the FOC has not opened a case yet. If there is a support order and/or there is a final judgment or order in your case, it is likely the FOC has opened a case.

    If the FOC has not opened a case yet, you can opt out unless the court determines one or more of the following is true:

    • One of the parties qualifies for public assistance;
    • One of the parties applied for Title IV-D child support services;
    • One of the parties requested that the FOC open and maintain a case;
    • There is evidence of domestic violence or uneven bargaining positions and evidence that a party’s failure to apply for child support services is against the best interest of the party or a child.

    If the FOC has already opened a case in your action, you can opt out unless the court determines one or more of the following is true:

    • Either party objects;
    • A party receives public assistance;
    • A party used to get public assistance, and a past-due support obligation is owed to the government agency that provided the assistance;
    • The FOC case record shows that within the previous 12 months, a child support arrearage or a custody or parenting time order violation occurred;
    • A party reopened a closed FOC case within the past 12 months;
    • There is evidence of domestic violence or an uneven bargaining position, and evidence suggests the party’s decision to opt out is against the best interest of the party or child.

    To ask the court to opt out of FOC services, file a motion asking that Friend of the Court services not be required. There is no form motion accepted statewide for this purpose. However, some circuit courts have developed a form motion for opt-out requests. Contact your court to find out if they have one. If you file a motion to opt out, you must attach a signed copy of the Advice of Rights Regarding Use of Friend of the Court Services.

    You can opt back into FOC services at any time by asking the FOC to reopen your case or by requesting any service from the FOC. The form to ask the FOC to reopen your case is the Request to Reopen Friend of the Court Case. Also, the FOC will reopen your case file if one of you applies for public assistance. The judge may ask you or the FOC to prepare a written order to reopen the case.

    Other FOC Resources

    The Friend of the Court also provides court forms on many issues that you can use without a lawyer’s help. These include form motions, responses, orders, and procedural instructions. Many FOC offices also have standard parenting time schedules that you can use in your case.