Divorce with Minor Children in Wisconsin: What Parents Need to Know

If you are a parent of minor children in Wisconsin and are going through a divorce, it’s important to realize the legal implications of your decisions throughout the divorce process. On issues regarding child custody, physical placement, child support, and post-divorce matters, the courts will always consider the best interests of the children.

This article discusses terminology you should understand. It also offers an attorney perspective as we work with you to help your divorce go as smoothly as possible for everyone affected.

Understanding custody vs. placement in Wisconsin divorces

“Legal custody” of a minor child refers to the right and responsibility of the parent to make major decisions concerning the child, such as choice of school and religion, healthcare issues, and consent to obtain a driver’s license. “Sole legal custody” means that only one parent has the right and responsibility to make major decisions. “Joint legal custody” grants both parents decision-making authority, and neither parent’s rights are superior. Certain decisions can, however, be allocated to one parent either by agreement between the parents or by the court.

In Wisconsin, there is a presumption of joint legal custody, except in cases where there is evidence of child abuse, domestic abuse or drug/alcohol abuse. Consult with your attorney about extraordinary circumstances.  

The term “placement” refers to a parent’s right to have a child physically placed with them. It also implies the parent’s right and responsibility to make routine daily decisions regarding the child’s care during that placement time. Physical placement can be shared, or one parent may have primary physical placement.

Placement is often affected by factors such as where the children go to school, the parents’ work schedules, and, to some extent (depending on the age of the children), the wishes of the children.

When considering your routine placement schedule, it is important to also discuss schedules for holidays, vacations, birthdays, and parents’ work schedules, including work travel.

If both parents have significant placement time with the children, then each parent should accommodate the children’s needs. For example, a studio apartment or a two-seater car might not be suitable for parenting multiple children.

Child support – Who pays and how much?

“Child support” is financial support from one parent to the other for expenses such as housing, tuition, food, healthcare, and day-to-day expenses of raising a child. Who pays the child support, who receives it, and how much is paid is different for each family. The standard percentages of child support in Wisconsin range from 17% of gross income for one child and up to 34% for five or more children. While it is typically paid by the higher income parent, physical placement time (and other factors) are usually part of the equation.

In 2018, new rules were set forth in Wisconsin regarding a number of factors related to co-parenting.  Among those changes were the handling of “variable expenses,” overnight placement time for parents who work night shifts or atypical hours, and parent relocation. Be sure to ask your attorney about any recent law changes to determine what is applicable in your case.

Property division in a divorce

Wisconsin is considered a “community property” state, which means both spouses own half of the assets as well as half of the debts in the marriage.  There are exceptions to the rule that include inheritances, property owned pre-marriage, the length of time of the marriage, and earning potential. If you had a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement, that agreement would clarify the rights each spouse has to certain property in the divorce.

Ideally, you and your spouse will agree on division of property and payment of debts so that both of you leave the marriage with comparable financial security. Your attorney can help with determining a fair division of assets. If you cannot agree on division of property, the court will make the final decision for you.

Consider collaborative divorce proceedings

A “collaborative divorce” is different from a typical litigation process in that the parties agree to resolve issues together and not resort to the court. The spouses agree to an open and honest exchange of information. They negotiate resolutions that take into account the interests of all family members. Other professionals, such as family therapists and accountants, may act as part of a team that assists both parties in a neutral fashion.

Many professionals and parents consider the collaborative process to be healthier for the children. The process can significantly increase the likelihood of resolving disputes while preserving positive relationships. Since the couple must establish agreed-upon terms, it can help improve communication and problem-solving skills to minimize future conflicts.

Addressing emotions during the divorce process

Going through a divorce can take an emotional toll on parents and children alike. However, if the parents follow certain guiding principles, divorce can be made easier on the children. Some of these guidelines include:

  • Adults (including friends and relatives) should work to ensure that the children are unaware of adult problems in the divorce. Do not speak negatively about the other parent in the presence of the children.  Children can be tuned into discussions about the other parent and the divorce when you think they are not listening.
  • Parents should make it clear to the children that the divorce is not their fault. Studies have shown that most children believe to some extent that they caused their parents’ divorce. They may feel ashamed, guilty or embarrassed as a result.
  • As a parent, you should repeatedly ask yourself what is best for the children and not just what is best or most convenient for you. No decisions related to the children should be done to “punish” your ex-spouse. Put your children first.
  • Consider counseling and mental health therapy for every member of the family -- individually as well as family counseling. Not addressing the stress and emotions of divorce felt by any or all family members can have lasting emotional consequences for individuals. It can negatively affect family dynamics moving forward. Do not assume that “kids are resilient,” which many adults tend to believe.

Post-divorce issues to consider

When a divorce is final, parents should inform the child’s physician, daycare provider, school officials, and parents of the children’s friends that the parents are no longer married. Making these individuals aware of the divorce is not only important for the child’s benefit, but also ensures no major decisions are made without your consent.

Keep communication with the other parent as open as possible. Many post-divorce conflicts are a result of poor communication. Never expect the children to deliver information to the other parent or blame them for miscommunication with your ex.

Revise your will and estate plan -- or make a will if you do not already have one. Be sure to change the beneficiaries of insurance policies and financial accounts where appropriate.

It is possible that changes might occur after your divorce is final. A parent might move far away or lose their job. Your child might be endangered by the other parent due to drug use or neglect. A parent might not follow the divorce agreement as planned. If situations occur that affect your children, contact your family law attorney as soon as possible to address your concerns.

A smooth transition for families after divorce

With cooperation and reasonable negotiating, you and your children should be able to transition well from the whole family living under one roof to having two homes in which your children can thrive, be happy, and feel secure.

The experienced family law attorneys at Murphy Desmond can guide you through your divorce when children are involved. Contact us today by calling 608.257.7181 or emailing us at email@murphydesmond.com.

Published July 25, 2019