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Frequently Asked Questions About Family Law in Wisconsin

Divorce FAQ

Divorce

What is a default divorce?

A default divorce is one in which you and your spouse have no contested issues for the court to decide. A default hearing usually occurs soon after you file a final marital settlement agreement. This spells out all your arrangements for support, maintenance, and asset and liability distribution.
The default hearing cannot occur until after the 120-day waiting period expires, unless there is an emergency. At the hearing, upon approval of your agreement, the court will grant an absolute judgment of divorce.
Don't confuse "default divorce" with "no-fault divorce." A no-fault divorce means that the petitioner need not prove wrongdoing on the part of the other spouse in order to file for divorce. Wisconsin is a no-fault state. As noted earlier in this pamphlet, the only legal basis for divorce in this state is that the marriage is "irretrievably broken."

What if my spouse and I can't reach an agreement?

If you can't reach a final agreement, your case goes to trial. The trial date depends on the length of time needed for the hearing and the court's other business. Contested divorce trials are costly and involved. The court enforces rules of evidence, which contain many pitfalls for the unwary. The best way to avoid these is to hire an attorney.

Can spouses use the same divorce lawyer?

Ethical rules prohibit an attorney from representing both spouses in a divorce.
Occasionally an attorney represents one spouse, and the other spouse chooses to represent himself or herself. Divorces in which neither spouse uses an attorney also occur, particularly when the couple has no children and/or little or no property.
Exercise caution if you go through a divorce without a lawyer. Divorce is a lawsuit, often having hidden consequences. If you have little or no income to pay for an attorney, you may qualify for free help from a legal services agency.

Will the court order my spouse to pay for my attorney?

Under certain limited circumstances, the court may order your spouse to help pay your attorney fees. One example would be if your spouse violated a court order during the divorce. Usually, however, each party pays for his or her own lawyer.

May a woman use her former name after a divorce?

If a woman wants to resume using her maiden name or a former legal name, the court restores it as part of the divorce action. Or she may continue to use her married name, if she wishes.

What can I do if I'm dissatisfied with the final divorce judgment?

You can ask the court to reconsider its decision. You also can appeal to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Strict time limits exist for filing an appeal (usually 45 days).
If you are dissatisfied with a decision about maintenance, however, you should be aware of certain limits. The court can't revise a judgment that waives maintenance. If you want the court to reconsider an award of limited-term maintenance, you must file a motion before the maintenance period ends.

Can the final divorce judgment be changed in the future?

The trial court can modify certain orders, such as child support and physical placement, in the future, although usually you must show that a substantial change in circumstances has occurred since the current orders went into effect before a trial court can revise a judgment. In most cases, orders regarding property division cannot be changed, once the orders are approved by the court.

Can I move to a new location after the divorce?

If you have children, you may face limits on where you can move after a divorce, just as you do during a pending divorce. If you want to move out of state or more than 150 miles away from the other parent, you must provide notice by certified mail of your plans at least 60 days before the planned move. The other parent may file a written objection within 15 days of receiving the notice. The court then will refer you and your former spouse to mediation. The court also may appoint a guardian ad litem for your children.

What can I do if my former spouse disobeys a court order regarding custody, physical placement, child support, maintenance, or debt payments?

You must petition the court to enforce its order. This is known as a contempt motion. After receiving the court papers, your former spouse must appear in court to report whether he or she has followed the court's orders and to explain any lapses.
After hearing the facts, the court decides whether your former spouse willfully disobeyed. The court may find your former spouse in contempt and grant him or her an opportunity to correct the contempt. Failure to do so can result in as much as six months in jail. The court also may issue other orders as necessary to remedy the contempt.
If the other parent denies or substantially interferes with one or more periods of physical placement, you may bring a petition for enforcement of physical placement order. Usually the court must hold a hearing on such a petition no later than 30 days after it is served on the other parent. If the court finds that your former spouse intentionally and unreasonably denied you of one or more periods of physical placement, the court can issue various orders. These might include granting additional periods of physical placement to replace those denied or hindered, as well as awarding you money and attorney fees.

If my spouse fails to pay bills as ordered by the court, can the creditor sue both of us?

Yes. The court's order doesn't change your relationship with creditors – that is, the parties to whom you owe money. Creditors may sue either spouse and may repossess any property pledged as security. If the creditor sues only one spouse, that spouse may bring the other into the lawsuit.

What is mediation?

A mediator takes no one's side. His or her role is to help a couple to communicate and arrive at mutual agreements. Through mediation, you may be able to resolve disputes faster, with less bitterness, and at less cost than battling in court.
As mentioned earlier, the family court's counseling services provide mediation for couples needing help to settle child custody and placement issues. Family court counseling usually doesn't address property settlements, maintenance, or child support – unless these issues relate directly to child custody or placement. But you may discuss these issues if both of you agree in writing to do so.
Usually, the spouses split most of the family court counseling costs. For more information on family court counseling, see the State Bar's brochure, "Answering Your Legal Questions About Custody and Placement."
Private mediation services also are available. Here a couple can discuss any issues pertaining to their divorce, and they pay all the mediation costs. Your lawyer can refer you to an appropriate service. See also the State Bar's pamphlet, "Answering Your Legal Questions About Alternative Dispute Resolution."

What is a cooperative and collaborative divorce?

In these processes, the focus is on settlement of issues. The goal is to reduce the emotional and financial effects of divorce by avoiding formal discovery and individual appraisal of assets. In a collaborative divorce, if the process fails, the attorneys for both spouses must withdraw and turn the case over to other attorneys. For more information on collaborative divorce in Wisconsin, go to www.collabdivorce.com. In a cooperative divorce, although the emphasis is on settlement, court is still available as an option, but only if all efforts at settlement fail. For more information about cooperative divorce in Wisconsin, go to www.cooperativedivorce.org.

What should I look for in a divorce lawyer?

Contrary to what many people believe, good divorce lawyers don't push their clients into full-scale war. This only leaves behind damage and resentments that can linger for years.
The best outcome is a divorce that allows two people to begin to heal and get on with their lives. Toward that end, divorce attorneys help their clients to settle their divorce, if at all possible, rather than to go to trial. As you ask for recommendations, you should seek a divorce lawyer who will:
  • act as a problem-solver and peacemaker;
  • be courageous enough to tell you things you may not want to hear; and
  • be courteous and cooperative in working with your spouse's attorney.
This is one in a series of consumer information pamphlets sponsored by the State Bar of Wisconsin. This pamphlet, which is based on Wisconsin law, is issued to inform and not to advise. No person should ever apply or interpret any law without the aid of a trained expert who knows the facts, because the facts may change the application of the law.
6/08. © State Bar of Wisconsin