“I know I need to get a divorce, but I don’t know where to start.” This is the most frequent comment I hear from people after making the decision to get a divorce. Understanding the issues that are going to be determined and the law governing them is the best place to start. Divorces involve many decisions—children, finances, where to live, etc. An informed decision is always a better decision. The following is my “Top 5” list of things to know before commencing a divorce in Wisconsin; these are the big five issues decided in most divorce cases:
1. Legal Custody: Legal Custody means the authority of a parent to make important decisions regarding joint minor children. These decisions include matters such as which religion the child will be raised in, the education the minor child will receive, and medical decisions. Wisconsin law presumes the legal custody will be shared between the parents, but may award sole legal custody in circumstances where one parent is uninvolved, has demonstrated an inability to make good decisions, etc. Joint legal custody means parents need to keep each other informed and cooperate with one another until the child turns 18, and cautions toward preserving as amicable a relationship as possible.
2. Placement: Placement refers to which parent has the right to have a minor child physically placed with him or her during certain times. The parent with placement makes the day-to-day decisions regarding the child’s care during his or her period of placement. Courts care about one thing and one thing only when deciding the allocation of placement between the parents: the best interests of the child. In contended cases, the Court is likely to appoint an attorney, known as a Guardian ad Litem, to represent the interests of the child.
3. Child Support: The award of child support in Wisconsin is based on the following percentage of gross income guidelines: 17% for one child, 25% for two children, 29% for three children…. However, the courts do take into consideration whether it is a shared-placement situation, whether the parent paying the support is a low or high income wage earner, and whether the parent paying the support is court ordered to pay child support to any children in other families.
4. Spousal Support: Wisconsin courts have discretion to award spousal support to a party in cases where one party has grown dependent on the other party to maintain approximately their current standard of living at the time of the divorce. Courts prefer to award limited-term maintenance over permanent maintenance, meaning that one party receives support while he or she has the chance to retrain or find a job. Factors courts consider in determining whether to award no maintenance, limited-term maintenance, or permanent maintenance include the length of the marriage, the health of the parties, and the earning capacity of the parties.
5. Property & Debt Division: Wisconsin is a marital property state. That means that any income, property, or debt acquired during the marriage is marital property that will be divided equally in the event of a divorce. If a spouse has property from before the marriage or receives an inheritance or gift directed solely to him or her during the marriage, it is not marital property. It is crucial to avoid comingling this non-marital property with marital property, as tracing it could become a nightmare, and, in all likelihood, it will be considered marital property that must be divided.
If there is disagreement about any of the five issues discussed above, it is highly advisable to retain an attorney to represent you through the divorce proceedings. Most divorces end in a Marital Settlement Agreement, which a judge reviews, and often adopts in its entirety, before granting the divorce. Knowing your rights is the key to achieving them, regardless of whether you are representing yourself or working with an attorney.