Hi, I’m Marcy Hahn. This is Divorce: What to Expect. On today’s episode, we’re going to get a view from the family court in Michigan. And we have a special guest Referee Ryan O’Neil. Referee O’Neil is a friend of the court referee with Oakland County Circuit Court. He is an expert in the area of domestic relations law, and he assists in helping the court make decisions about family law cases that are pending before it. He’s a member of the State Bar of Michigan’s Family Law Section and the Oakland Bar Association, where he previously served as the family court committee chair. He’s also a member of the Oakland County Bar Foundation and the Referees Association of Michigan. Mr. O’Neil is also a member of the Incorporated Society of Irish American Lawyers, and has published articles and is co-author for a monthly column as well as the co-editor of the State Bar of Michigan’s Family Law Journal. Mr. O’Neil also serves as an adjunct professor of business law at Oakland Community College.
Domestic Relations Law Expert
Welcome Referee O’Neil.
Hi, Marcy. Thanks so much for having me.
Well, thanks for participating. This is really exciting. What can you tell our listeners about your role in the family court system in Michigan and how it has changed with COVID?
So my role, as you stated, is to assist the court in matters particularly involving the subjects of custody parenting time and child support. So when a case is filed in Oakland County and a party or parties have minor children involved, they will at some juncture appear before the front of the court either for an early intervention conference or possibly on a motion call. And our job is to help the court where the parties may have disagreements over those core issues again of custody, parenting time and child support. So our office assists parties in a number of different areas. We do things such as collect child support, enforce child support orders, conduct hearings on custody, and parenting time disputes. On occasion, we will handle spousal support matters and collect those as well. So there’s a myriad of different things that we are involved in and since COVID-19 entered our lives. What is it now seven years ago? No, two months ago… it feels like an eternity. Really, our role hasn’t changed too much. What’s really changed is sort of how we do the job. And thankfully, we live in an era of technology that allows us to continue to provide access to the court system, even where people are being ordered to shelter in place. So that really, you know, we hear so many of these references to the Spanish Flu in 1918. And I always think my gosh, like, you know, if we were back 100 years ago, having to deal with this, none of the technologies that we really sort of take for granted today would have been available, you’d have just shut down and gone months without having any access to the court systems. And, thankfully for us, you know, our offices, IT departments and our supervisors and our administration really from day one knew sort of two things, number one, that this pandemic was going to be with us for a sustained period of time. But number two, that we needed to swiftly find a way to make sure that people could continue to access the court system. And so, you know, we had folks who had pending Child Support Modification motions, folks who had pending parenting time motions, cases that had custody disputes, people who had filed motions to change their children’s school coming up for next year, folks who had wanted to leave the state of Michigan and move beyond the hundred miles, but they share legal custody with the other parents. So a hearing has to be conducted on that. And so they really did a marvelous job, really within I’d say almost a week of the stay at home orders getting entered, getting all of our staff and referees equipped to basically work from home, stay safe, and also provide access to folks so that they could continue on and keep these cases on a timely track and really not prejudice somebody by saying, ‘Well, sorry, you know, I guess we’ll see what happens in June or July when hopefully the curve is flattened and we can start to lift some of these restrictions.’
That’s great that the courts have been able to be nimble. And to make that switch so seamlessly. Are you seeing an increase in the number of people who are asking for relief from their child support order because they’ve lost their job, or they have had a reduction in their income?
Some… candidly, I really had thought we would probably see a little bit more. And I think that is probably a testament to the relief that has been afforded to folks. You know, a lot of people who had you know, perhaps previously been filing motions to modify the support might have been folks who had an hourly income that was less than $20 an hour. And so when this pandemic hit, I sort of thought, well, you know, you’re going to see folks who work in the service industry who, you know, restaurants are closed and retail shops are closed. And those are going to be the folks who are going to have to come and really, you know, tweak these orders, while we shelter in place. But with the federal supplement of $600 a week plus, you know, the state at $362 a week, you know, you’ve got folks now earning an average hourly effective rate of $24.50 an hour and so I think that’s really helped to sort of keep, you know, folks not having to access the court system. What will be interesting is going to be what happens when that 13 week period runs out. If there is no additional stimulus provided, then I do think you’re going to see a lot more folks having to come into court particularly if you know, retail remains shuttered and restaurants are operating at a 25 or 50% capacity. And, you know, owners just don’t have the need for as many employees as they did pre COVID-19.
Tune in to the episode to hear the rest of my insightful interview with Referee O’Neil.
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