Appellate Court Reaffirms Children Have Only One Domicile For Michigan No-Fault

Abe Barlaskar
Legal Trend Newsletter - Spring/Summer Edition 2014

When is a house a home? When establishing priority for Michigan no-fault benefits, the Michigan Court of Appeals recently clarified that question by ruling that a custody order may determine where a minor plaintiff is domiciled at the time of a motor vehicle accident.

In Chaney v Titan Indemnity Company (unpublished), a minor plaintiff was a passenger in a car that was involved in a July 2010 accident. The plaintiff suffered injuries and made a claim for Michigan personal protection no-fault benefits under his mother’s automobile insurance policy with the defendant insurer as “a relative ... domiciled in the same household” under MCL 500.3114(1).

At the time of the accident, the plaintiff lived with his half-sister in a home owned by his mother in Detroit. His mother lived in a home in Grand Blanc, Michigan, but evidence showed that she spent two or three weekends per month at the Detroit home.

The defendant insurer denied the claim and the minor plaintiff filed suit. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary disposition on the grounds that the plaintiff was not domiciled with his mother at the time of the motor vehicle accident. The plaintiff appealed.

Essential to the appellate court’s reversal was the Michigan Supreme Court’s opinion in Grange Ins Co of Mich v Lawrence, 494 Mich 475; 835 NW2d 363 (2013). In Grange, the Supreme Court addressed the question of “whether a family court order that establishes the custody of minor children is conclusive evidence of a child’s domicile for purposes of determining coverage under MCL 500.3114(1).”

The Supreme Court concluded:

“We hold, consistent with traditional definitions of the term ‘domicile’ under the common law and as that term is used in MCL 500.3114(1), that a child of divorced parents has only one domicile at any given point in time. Further, in the event that the child’s parents are divorced and a family court has entered an order relating to custody, we hold, consistent with the common law of domicile as it pertains to minors and the legally binding nature of custody orders, that the child’s domicile is established by operation of law and that the custody order is thus determinative of the child’s domicile for all purposes, including the no-fault act. [Id. at 481.]

At oral argument in this case, the plaintiff presented a default judgment of divorce that provided, in no uncertain terms, that the plaintiff’s mother “[wa]s awarded the care, custody, maintenance and education of” the minor plaintiff.

Based on the language of the default judgment of divorce and absent subsequent changes to that custody order, the appellate court concluded, consistent with Grange, that on the date of the accident, the minor plaintiff was domiciled with his mother as a matter of law for purposes of the priority provisions of the Michigan No-Fault Act (MCL 500.3114(1)).

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