Wisconsin Divorce and Family Law During the Coronavirus Pandemic and "Safer at Home" Order: Frequently Asked Questions

The COVID-19 pandemic and Governor Evers’ “Safer at Home” Order has presented a number of issues for divorced couples, as well as those couples in the process of divorcing. Please see the following questions and answers and contact your attorney if you have further questions or concerns.

The CARES Act allows economic stimulus payments for qualifying couples, single parents, and children under 17. How will these checks be distributed among separate households? Who will receive the $500 checks for minor children?

The IRS is distributing the checks to the parent with the most recent tax filing who claimed the children as dependents.

Oftentimes, parents will take turns claiming dependents in alternate years, or if there are an even number of children, both parents claim the same number of dependents each year. In those cases, the parents will get a check for each child 16 and under who they claim as dependents.

If your kids are 17 and older, such as college aged, and you are claiming them as dependents on your taxes, those children do not qualify for either the $500 minor child payments nor the $1,200 per person.

Important to note: Your household income must be at a level that qualifies to receive the stimulus payments. Families with incomes that exceed $198,000 filing jointly or $99,000 filing single, will not be eligible for payments. See here for more information.

What if you are recently divorced or are separated in your marriage? Who will receive the stimulus checks?

If you and your spouse have divorced recently, but filed taxes jointly last time you filed your taxes, qualifying couples (based on joint income) will get a joint stimulus check up to $2,400, sent to the bank account where your last refund was distributed.  

If your bank account has changed, you need to inform the IRS of this change and have the check distributed to a different account.

Can couples still file for divorce or legal separation in Wisconsin during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes, you may still file for divorce during the pandemic. Your divorce attorney can help you file.  

If the court date for your divorce is scheduled during the "Safer at Home" Order in Wisconsin, will your divorce be postponed?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an order on March 25, 2020, that suspended all in-person court proceedings through April 30, 2020. Stipulated divorce hearings may proceed by telephone as long as both of the parties have filed their financial disclosure statements and a signed marital settlement agreement has been electronically filed prior to the court hearing.

Any hearings that can be done by phone will proceed as scheduled, i.e. name changes, scheduling conferences, status conferences and some motion hearings.

All contested matters that require in-person appearances such as contested custody and placement hearings, de novo hearings, and contested divorce trials are suspended. If you have a contested court hearing that is scheduled before April 30, 2020, the court will contact you regarding a new hearing date.

If your ex-spouse/parent of your minor children is on the front lines in healthcare or another high-exposure essential business, but you are able to practice “Safer at Home” recommendations, can you temporarily change placement of your children to better protect them from COVID-19 exposure?  

It depends on the circumstances. Pursuant to the “Safer at Home” Order in Wisconsin, all court orders that are currently in place shall remain, including the placement schedule. However, if the home where a child resides is potentially unsafe, then there may be a basis to revise placement until the situation subsides.

Hopefully parents can agree to a situation that is best for the children without involving the courts. Contact a family law attorney to discuss your situation.

What if you lost your job as a result of COVID-19 and are living on unemployment? How does that affect child support?

In order to get child support reduced or revised, there needs to be a substantial change in circumstances. In other words, if your income has been reduced by approximately 15% and you currently pay child support, then you should file a motion with the courts to have child support revised. If you do not file a motion to reduce your child support payments, then an arrearage will accumulate. You will owe any amounts that were to be paid, in addition to interest. Also, coronavirus money can still be garnished if you owe back child support payments.

Whether you are the recipient of child support or you pay child support, it is important to communicate with the parent of your children about your situation. You may be able to agree on a temporary payment schedule until your financial situation changes. If you cannot agree or it appears the changes will be permanent or long term, contact your family lawyer.

If your ex-spouse has mental health issues that may get worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as addictions or other serious concerns, is there anything you can do to ensure your children are being properly cared for during your ex-spouse’s placement time?

If you are concerned about your children’s well-being during this pandemic, discuss your concerns with the parent of your child if you believe it is safe to do so. If you would like to change placement as a result, contact your lawyer to discuss the details of your situation.

Will divorce-related real estate transactions, such as sale and purchase of homes, still be occurring during the pandemic?

Yes. If you are planning on refinancing a mortgage or receiving a payout from your ex-spouse, the pandemic should not prevent any of these real estate transactions. However, if you or your soon-to-be ex lost your income due to job loss resulting from COVID-19, you should reconsider any real estate decisions.

Are you a grandparent who is concerned about the well-being of your grandchildren due to a parent’s loss of job, mental health issues, drug use, or abuse during “Safer at Home” Orders?  If so, what can you do?

Grandparents should contact a family lawyer immediately if you are concerned about the well-being of your grandchildren. You may be able to file a motion with the courts for a temporary or permanent guardianship right away. The court can have the hearing to establish guardianships over the phone. Grandparents’ rights are tricky in Wisconsin, but special circumstances may apply.

Experienced family law attorneys to help you navigate COVID-19 issues in Wisconsin

Murphy Desmond’s family lawyers are staying on top of legislation and other issues that could affect placement, child support, and more. Call us at 608.257.7181 to set up a consultation. We have lawyers in Madison, Dodgeville, and Janesville, Wisconsin, to assist with all your family legal needs.

Published April 10, 2020