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Divorce in Wisconsin
The Legal Process, Your Rights, and What to Expect
By Linda S. Vanden Heuvel
Addicus Books, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Linda S. Vanden Heuvel
All rights reserved.
Understanding the Divorce Process
The process of ending a marriage often creates feelings of anxiety and fear of the unknown. However, understanding divorce procedure can bring some predictability which, in turn, will provide you with a greater sense of confidence and comfort, and a footprint for the steps to reaching a successful resolution of your divorce.
It is important to develop a basic understanding of the divorce process. This knowledge will lower your anxiety if your attorney or the court starts using words or phrases you do not understand. It will help reduce your frustration about the length of the process because you will be equipped to recognize the reasons supporting each step and procedure. Sometimes just realizing that you are completing the steps of the divorce process can bring reassurance that progress is being made toward the final resolution of your divorce.
It is also important to note that your emotions, as well as the emotions of your spouse, may also drive the process. You are strongly encouraged to use good sense and reasoning to make divorce decisions and to refrain from letting the hurt and pain that follows the end of a relationship be the guide to your decision making. You are encouraged to seek guidance and therapy if needed.
Making decisions based on common sense and factual information, not anger and emotion, will speed the resolution of your divorce and will make Wisconsin's no-fault divorce process easier.
The purpose of Divorce in Wisconsin is to provide you with an understanding of the divorce process and procedure, to reduce frustration with the length of the divorce process, and to increase your awareness of the steps necessary to conclude your divorce in a successful manner.
1.1 What steps are taken during the divorce process?
If you are initiating the divorce, the divorce process in Wisconsin typically involves the steps listed below:
Obtain a referral for a family law or divorce attorney. Ask for specific referrals to attorneys who are experienced and knowledgeable in divorce law.
Schedule an appointment with a divorce attorney. You may want to interview more than one attorney to determine which attorney will best meet your divorce needs.
Prepare questions and gather basic documents for your initial consultation (more about these documents later).
Meet with an attorney for an initial consultation.
When you decide to retain a particular attorney, you will pay a retainer to your attorney and sign a written retainer or legal services agreement.
Provide any additional requested information and documents to your attorney. Take other actions, as advised by your attorney.
Your attorney will prepare a summons and petition for divorce. The petition will require your signature.
After discussion with your attorney, a determination will be made whether a temporary hearing is necessary in your case. A temporary hearing is a hearing before a family court commissioner to decide temporary issues until the divorce is finalized. Issues that may be addressed at the temporary hearing include child support, maintenance, placement, allocation of debt, and/or attorney fee contribution. If it is determined that a temporary hearing is needed in your case, your attorney will prepare the necessary documents to schedule the hearing. Those documents will then be filed with the clerk of court in the county where your divorce is filed, along with the summons and petition for divorce.
After pleadings, formal written documents, have been filed and a temporary hearing date scheduled, the pleadings must be served on your spouse.
There are different ways to accomplish service. Your attorney will discuss your service options with you. You have ninety days after the filing of the summons and petition to serve the pleadings on your spouse. One sixty-day service extension may be granted by the court. If either party receives public assistance, a copy of the summons and petition must also be served on the county child-support agency.
If you are the spouse served with divorce papers, the foregoing process will also apply to your situation. However, rather than filing a summons and petition for divorce, your attorney will prepare a response and counterclaim to the summons and petition, which is due twenty days after the service of the summons and petition. You may also request a temporary hearing if necessary in your case.
Financial information must be provided to your attorney in advance of any temporary hearing. Information to be provided includes, but is not limited to, W-2s, tax returns, recent payroll stubs, your budget, a listing of all assets and liabilities, life insurance, and inherited and gifted property.
Negotiations are generally conducted relative to the proposed terms of the temporary order on matters such as custody, placement, support, maintenance, payment of debts, and temporary possession of the family home. If you can reach a temporary agreement with your spouse, a stipulation setting forth the terms of your agreement will be drafted. If settlement cannot be reached on temporary issues, your attorney will likely prepare financial statements, maintenance and child-support calculations, and budgets for presentation at the temporary hearing.
A temporary hearing is held if you and your spouse cannot reach agreement.
A temporary order is prepared by the family court commissioner, court, or one of the attorneys, approved as to form by the other attorney, and submitted to the court for filing.
If you have minor children, you and your spouse must attend a parent education class, develop a parenting plan (if custody or placement is in dispute), and participate in mediation. Generally, in Wisconsin the issues of custody and placement must be resolved before the court will address financial issues.
Both parties will conduct discovery to obtain information regarding all relevant facts. Discovery is the obtaining of information from the other party which is necessary to settle or try a case. Discovery includes formal requests for information, as well as informal discovery, which is merely a request from one attorney to the other for documents and information.
Valuations of all assets will be obtained, including real estate, retirement accounts, vehicles, investments, and business valuations. Sometimes it is necessary to hire appraisers and/or experts.
You will confer with your attorney to review facts, identify issues, and assess the strengths and weaknesses of your case. With the assistance of your attorney, you will review strategy and develop a proposal for settlement.
You and your spouse, with the support of your attorneys, will attempt to reach agreement through written proposals, mediation, settlement conferences, or other alternative dispute resolution.
If you and your spouse reach an agreement on all issues, one of the attorneys will prepare a marital settlement agreement, which is signed and approved by you and your spouse and your children's guardian ad litem, if applicable. A guardian ad litem is an attorney appointed to represent the best interests of your children if custody or placement is contested during the divorce.
The marital settlement agreement and updated financial disclosure statements are filed with the court.
The court holds a brief, final hearing called a default hearing. You and your spouse will testify that you understand and agree with the terms of the marital settlement agreement; state that the marriage is irretrievably broken; testify that your financial statement correctly identifies all income, assets, and liabilities; and provide the court with basic information about the marriage.
Judgment is entered, and divorce is granted. Each party is advised that he or she cannot remarry for a period of six months subsequent to the granting of the divorce.
Your attorney completes necessary orders and drafts documents to implement the terms of the divorce. These orders and documents will address transfer of real estate, retirement accounts, vehicles, implementation of child support, and more.
If your case is not resolved by a default divorce, your case will proceed to further litigation and potentially trial.
Additional discovery will probably be completed by the attorneys, including depositions, experts' analyses, valuations, vocational rehabilitation examinations, and more.
At this stage, because your case is in a trial posture, you may be compelled to pay your attorney an additional retainer to fund the work needed to prepare for trial and trial itself. You will be charged for costs, such as any transcript fees, witness fees, service fees, and expert-witness fees.
If agreement has been reached on some issues, but not all, one of the attorneys will prepare a partial marital settlement agreement on agreed issues. All disputed issues are set for trial.
You will work hand-in-hand with your attorney to prepare your case for trial.
Your attorney prepares witnesses, drafts trial exhibits, conducts legal research on contested issues, drafts pretrial motions with supporting affidavits, prepares direct and cross-examination of witnesses, prepares an opening statement, drafts subpoenas of witnesses, prepares a closing argument and suggestions to the court, and more.
Prior to trial, you will meet with your attorney on one or more occasions to prepare for trial and your trial testimony.
The court may order mediation or arbitration in an attempt to resolve all differences prior to your trial actually taking place. Alternative dispute resolution can take place at any time during the divorce process.
Either pre- or posttrial, the court may order each party to file a brief to address the law relative to disputed issues.
Trial is held. Each party provides testimony and exhibits setting forth his or her position relative to any disputed issues. Attorneys also generally make opening and closing statements. There are no jury trials in divorce actions in Wisconsin.
The judge renders his or her decision.
One attorney, generally the petitioner's attorney, prepares the findings of fact, conclusions of law, and judgment of divorce and submits it to the other attorney for approval as to form.
The findings of fact, conclusions of law, and judgment of divorce is then submitted to the court for its signature. This is the pleading that sets forth all of the terms of your divorce.
Your attorney completes necessary orders and documents to implement the terms of the divorce. These orders and documents cover transfers of real estate, retirement accounts, closing of credit cards, transfer of title, child support, maintenance payments, and more.
In the event you wish to appeal the divorce decision, your posttrial rights are discussed in chapter 16.
1.2 Am I required to be represented by an attorney in order to obtain a divorce in Wisconsin?
No. You are not required to retain an attorney to obtain a divorce in Wisconsin. However, if your case involves child-custody or child-placement issues, maintenance, or significant property or debts, you should carefully consider whether or not it is in your best interest to proceed without an attorney.
If your divorce does not involve any major issues, if you cannot afford a retainer, or if you simply want to proceed without legal representation, you can represent yourself pro se. A person who proceeds in a legal matter without a lawyer is referred to as acting pro se, or on one's own. Pro se divorce forms are available at www.wicourts.gov/forms1/circuit. You can also contact your local county clerk of court's office to ask what services are available to assist self-represented litigants. There may also be low-cost legal service programs available in your area. Check online for potential references. Some attorneys also offer payment plans or work pro bono. Contact your local bar association for other potential options for free or low-cost legal services.
If you are considering proceeding without an attorney, at a minimum, schedule an initial consultation with an attorney to discuss your rights and responsibilities according to Wisconsin divorce law. Meeting with an experienced family law attorney may help you determine whether it is cost-effective and legally smart to represent yourself in your divorce action. If you and your spouse reach a marital settlement agreement, you may want an attorney to review the document before you sign and file it with the court. Even if you begin the divorce unrepresented, you may decide you need an attorney during the divorce process if you become overwhelmed or unsatisfied appearing pro se.
1.3 What is my first step if I decide to retain an attorney to start my divorce?
If you decide to retain an attorney, locate a law firm that regularly handles family law issues as part of its law practice. Your divorce is important. You do not want to choose a lawyer who is unfamiliar with divorce trends, procedures, and divorce laws in Wisconsin.
The best recommendations generally are received from former clients and other people who have knowledge of a lawyer's experience and reputation. You can also search online for client reviews, although these reviews are not always reliable. Lawyers are also rated by Avvo, Inc. (www.Avvo.com) and Martindale-Hubbell (www.Martindale.com). These organizations provide a forum for people to share information about particular lawyers and law firms.
If you are only considering divorce and have not yet made a final decision, it is nevertheless wise to schedule an appointment with a family law attorney to obtain information about the divorce process and to obtain guidance about the issues in your case. Be able to identify your most important goals in seeking a divorce. Is custody and placement the biggest issue? Maintenance? Keeping the family home? It is important that you and your divorce attorney are on the same page when determining the goals for your divorce.
When you make your initial appointment, ask the lawyer or his or her legal staff what documents you should take with you to your initial consultation. This will help make your consultation more enlightening and cost-effective, and will provide the lawyer with necessary information to evaluate your case. If you have already been served with divorce or legal separation pleadings, provide these pleadings to the attorney at the initial consultation. Bring any prior divorce judgments, as well as any temporary restraining orders or permanent injunctions. Be prepared with any prenuptial or premarital agreements between you and your spouse.
Also, make a list of questions to ask the attorney at your first meeting. Some of these questions should include the following:
How long have you practiced law in Wisconsin?
What percentage of your practice is devoted to family law and divorce?
If you are not available to answer my questions during my divorce, who will answer my questions? Will anyone other than you be assigned to my case?
What is your hourly rate?
What is your retainer? Will you provide me with a written legal services agreement in advance for my review?
1.4 Is Wisconsin a no-fault state, or do I need grounds for a divorce?
Wisconsin is a no-fault divorce state. This means that neither you nor your spouse are required to prove that the other is "at fault" in order to be granted a divorce. Proof of factors such as infidelity, cruelty, or desertion are not necessary to obtain a divorce in Wisconsin. The only requirement is that the marriage is irretrievably broken.
Excerpted from Divorce in Wisconsin by Linda S. Vanden Heuvel. Copyright © 2015 Linda S. Vanden Heuvel. Excerpted by permission of Addicus Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Understanding the Divorce Process,
2 Coping with Stress during the Divorce Process,
3 Working with Your Attorney,
4 Attorney Fees and Costs,
5 The Discovery Process,
6 Mediation and Negotiation,
7 Emergency: When You Fear Your Spouse,
8 Child Custody and Placement,
9 Child Support,
11 Division of Property,
12 Benefits: Insurance, Retirement, and Pensions,
13 Division of Debts,
15 Going to Court,
16 The Appeal Process,
17 After the Divorce Is Final — Steps to Take,
About the Author,