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Child custody lawyers Wisconsin

Wisconsin Child Custody Attorneys With Free Consultations

You've already lost your marriage, the last thing you want is to lose your children too. An experienced divorce attorney can help guide you through the divorce process and obtain the custody that's best for your kids' future.

Wisconsin Child Custody & Placement Laws

Courts in Wisconsin enter every divorce case assuming 50/50 legal custody between parents is fair, equitable and in the best interest of the child. If either parent would like sole custody, they will have to prove to the court that sole custody is in the best interest of the child. 50/50 child placement is the most common physical custody arrangement, and it is more common for the court to award primary placement (over 50% of days of the year) to one parent than sole legal custody.

What rights and responsibilities come with legal custody in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin divorce law defines legal child custody as the right and responsibility to make major decisions concerning the child unless otherwise specified by the court in the final judgment. 

What are considered major decisions?

Major decisions outlined by Wisconsin divorce law include:

  • Consent to marry
  • Consent to enter military service
  • Consent to obtain a driver's license
  • Authorization for non-emergency health care
  • Choice of school and religion

Joint Legal


Both parties share legal custody and neither party's legal custody rights are superior unless specified in the final order. A parenting plan can be created to work out parenting issues and childcare arrangements. This is the typical 50/50 custody most people think of.

Under Wisconsin statute, joint custody is presumed to be in the best interest of the children. 50/50 custody means that parties must work together in order to make major decisions affecting the life of their child or children. Both parents have the equal ability to make major parental decisions for the children, i.e. schooling, religion, marriage as a minor or joining the military as a minor.

If the parties are unmarried at the time of the child’s birth and they do not acknowledge paternity at the time of birth, it is presumed the mother has sole custody until a paternity action is established.

Divorced parents fighting for the custody of their child in Wisconsin

Sole Legal


Only one party has legal custody.

Getting sole legal custody is difficult. The easiest way to receive sole custody is if both parties agree that custody should be granted to one parent. In most cases, courts will follow what the parties agree on if they agree that it is in the child’s best interest. The court will also consider ordering sole custody to one parent if the other parent cannot perform their parental responsibilities or if the parents choose not to agree on major decisions regarding their children. 

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Mediation for Child Custody:

When the parties are unable to come to an agreement on a custodial issue, they can hire a private mediator to assist them in the decision. If the disagreement is brought to the court's attention, the court may issue an order requiring mediation. A court may also appoint a Guardian ad Litem to represent the best interest of the children while the case is pending. A neutral third-party mediator can be helpful when resolving disputes for the best interest of the children.

Modification of Child Custody:

When there is a dispute on an existing court order for child custody, parties may want to go to court to ask to modify the child custody. It is difficult to modify child custody within the first two years of a final hearing.

For the court to approve a modification of child custody you need:

  • Evidence of physically or emotionally harmful circumstances for the child
  • Evidence that changing custody would be in the best interest of the child

3 Common Mistakes Made During Child Custody Battles

When going through a divorce with children involved, both parents should work together to develop a parenting plan in the best interests of the children. Judges take custody and placement decisions very seriously, and their job is to review the evidence and facts of your case objectively. They understand the emotions involved, but your behavior in the courtroom has the potential to help inform a judge's perspective on your parental abilities.

It can be difficult to overcome the emotions involved in the end of your marriage and the possibility of spending less time with your children. In the long run, protecting your children by avoiding these common mistakes is going to be beneficial to you, your spouse and your children.

  • Breaking Temporary Orders

    At the beginning of divorce proceedings, the court will make temporary orders for child custody as the case is pending. These orders will detail the placement of the children and the decision-making power of the parents. The temporary orders will be in place until a final order is issued.

    Whether you agree with the terms of the temporary order or not, you must follow them. Breaking the order is considered contempt of court and will likely affect the final outcome of your case.

    Too often, a parent will make the mistake of taking a child to another state without the approval or knowledge of the other parent. Even if it was not an attempt to kidnap the child or keep them from the other parent, this will almost always break the terms of your temporary order and greatly risk your reputation in the eyes of the court.

  • Getting Arrested

    Getting arrested in the middle of a custody battle is going to do you no favors. Whether it’s an OWI, drug violation or severe criminal charge, it is nearly impossible for an arrest to not affect your reputation in the courtroom when fighting for custody.

    Issues with alcohol and drugs are common reasons used to try to keep a party from getting primary or any physical placement time, and an arrest is only going to give your former spouse’s claims added credibility.

  • Irresponsible Use of Social Media

    Using social media to express frustrations with the case and air your grievances with the other parent often comes back to bite you in court. Anything you write and any photos you post can potentially be used against you in the courtroom.

    It is crucial for you to avoid posting negative content about your former spouse, and it generally is a good practice to avoid posting about ongoing divorce proceedings entirely. It also is advisable to avoid posting pictures of yourself excessively drinking alcohol or using drugs, as the photos will almost certainly be brought into the courtroom and used against you.

What is the difference between custody and placement?

  • In Wisconsin, the term custody refers to the legal decision-making power with respect to the minor child. It does not refer to where the child lives. Rather, the term placement is used to refer to where the child lives or physically spends time.
  • Two parents may have 50/50 placement with respect to their child, meaning the child spends equal amounts of time living with each parent. At the same time, one parent may have full custody, or full decision-making power, with respect to major decisions regarding the child.
  • One parent may have primary placement, or even full placement, with respect to the child, yet both parents may maintain 50/50 custody. In other words, the child lives primarily or solely with one parent, but both parents maintain the legal right to be involved in the major decisions made on behalf of the child, such as decisions related to school enrollment, religious upbringing, health care, etc.

Both custody and placement can be modified and have separate processes of modification

Best Practice for Creating a Placement Schedule  

At the end of the day, the child’s parents know the child better than any court official. Though divorce doesn’t make communication easier, to the extent you are able to communicate to create a parenting plan that works for both parents and the child, your child will benefit, and the stress associated with the custody and placement hearing will be significantly reduced.

Guidelines for Physical Placement Time 

Physical placement time refers to the time that the child physically spends in the care of one parent or the other. A specific period of physical placement time can extend for six hours, two days, a week, etc.

Often, a schedule of physical placement time is established for a two-week period that continues to repeat over time. However, alterations to the standard routine are often included for special occurrences like holidays, birthdays, vacations, school breaks, etc. 

The more detail you are able to include in your placement schedule about how these special occurrences will be planned and handled as they arise, the fewer obstacles you will have to overcome when that time comes.

Standard for Establishing Physical Placement

In Wisconsin, placement schedules are established based on the best interest of the child. This does not always mean 50/50. In a divorce with children, there is no legal requirement that both parents receive equal placement time. 

Some factors that contribute to the creation of a placement schedule include:

  • wishes of the parents
  • wishes of the child (with greater consideration as the child ages)
  • ability of each parent to care for the child
  • the living arrangements of each parent
  • the ability of each parent to transport the child
  • relationship a given parent may have with a new significant other

Impact of Routine Daily Decisions on Physical Placement Time

Activities such as social activities, extracurriculars, diet, bedtime, discipline, etc. are considered routine daily decisions. Generally, each parent is permitted to make routine daily decisions with respect to the child during that parent’s physical placement time—to the extent that such decisions do not conflict with major custodial decisions.

When a daily activity will take place during both parents’ physical placement time, the parents must discuss the issue and come to an agreement on arrangements together. An example of this may be an extracurricular activity that takes place every day after school when the parents have shared physical placement during the school week.

What Happens When a Parent Violates a Custody Order in Wisconsin?

Custody is the major decision-making authority a judge will order for parents. Custody can be ordered solely to one parent or as 50/50 shared custody following a divorce. A judge can also uniquely fashion a custody order; for example, if there is joint custody but the parties just cannot agree as to the schooling of the child, the judge can order joint custody while granting one parent the final decision-making power for schooling arrangements.


So, what happens when a parent in Wisconsin violates an order from the court? A judge can impose two main sanctions – fines or jail – if the court finds someone to be in contempt.

A person can be found in “contempt of court” when the judge finds that he or she has disobeyed an order of the court or is disrespectful of the court’s authority. Contempt is a judge’s strongest authority to impose punishment for behavior that disrupts the normal court processes.

A finding of contempt can result from several acts or behavior. A court can find someone in contempt for: 

  • Not following a court order
  • Disrespecting the judge
  • Disrupting a court hearing with poor behavior
  • Postings on social media that could jeopardize a trial’s outcome

Family Court

If a final judgment has been entered on a family case and one party is disregarding the judgment, the other party may make the court aware of the issue. This is the process of filing for contempt. There are two types of contempt a party can seek depending on which order the opposing party is suspected of disregarding.

If it is the placement portion that is being disregarded, a Motion to Enforce Physical Placement can be filed. Examples of disregarding the placement orders include:

  • You are being denied your placement or the other parent is not returning the child
  • There was interference with your placement time
  • You incurred a financial loss or an expense due to the other parent's failure to exercise placement

If other details of the order are being ignored by one party, you can motion the court to find contempt.

Regardless of the type of contempt, if you are making the claim of contempt, you are also required to properly serve the other party with the court paperwork. If you need to modify a current order or a placement modification, you can do so by filing a motion to explain your reasons why.

All-inclusive family law services

Our Milwaukee family law attorneys will ease your family back into stability as efficiently as possible, placing the well-being of your child above all else. From child custody mediation to child support litigation, Divergent is Wisconsin's top choice for keeping children first. 

Divergent Family Law is able to review each case and set a fixed fee rate for the cost of your divorce. See also: How much does a divorce cost in Wisconsin?

Use our child support calculator to get an estimate of how much your monthly child support payments could be. 

Contact Divergent to start your free initial consultation with experienced child custody lawyers in Milwaukee, Glendale, Brookfield, Madison, & Appleton.

5 Common Misconceptions about Child Custody

  • Custody and Visitation agreements are permanent once ordered

    Child custody rulings can be modified for substantial changes in circumstances affecting the best interests of the children. There may be time restrictions on any changes to child custody rulings, but even those restrictions are not set in stone when the best interests of children are in question.

  • Courts favor mothers when awarding custody

    When deciding on child support and custody orders, the court unbiasedly looks at both parents and ultimately makes their decision in the best interests of the children. It is common for people to believe the courts will favor the mother in family law matters, but that is simply no longer true. The courts will look at each party’s character and ability to parent when making their decision.

  • Sole custody is commonly awarded

    In reality, sole custody is rarely awarded. Wisconsin courts enter into divorce proceedings with the assumption that 50/50 legal custody will be equitable and in the best interest of the children. If one party looks to secure sole custody, they hold the burden of proof. Sole custody generally only becomes an option when one parent is extremely irresponsible, deemed to be an unfit parent by the court or has a documented history of domestic abuse.

  • Custody can be awarded to grandparents

    In Wisconsin, grandparents are entitled to visitation rights, but not rights to seek custody. Even if the grandparents are granted periods of visitation, they must abide by the decisions of custodial parents. If a grandparent believes the parents are unfit, they will have to file for guardianship of the child outside of the divorce proceedings.

  • Courts consider the desires of parents when making custody decisions

    Legally, the court does not consider the needs or desires of a parent when making decisions and orders for custody. Custody rulings are solely based on the best interests of children and how to best meet their needs.

    To find out if you have a custody case a court will hear, contact Divergent Family Law and set up a free consultation.

How Courts Treat Custodial Interference in Wisconsin

In most divorce and child custody cases, the court will issue an order or judgment for parents as it relates to the physical placement and visitation of their child or children. When one parent fails to follow the order, a family law case can quickly turn criminal. In Wisconsin, the crime is known as Interference with Custody and is codified in Wis. Stat. § 948.31. A criminal arrest and conviction can occur when one parent keeps the child past the court-ordered placement time. In addition, the parent whose time has been interfered with can file a motion in family court to enforce the placement schedule.

How do you know if you or your child’s other parent are engaging in custodial interference? 

To answer that, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you unreasonably denied the other parent placement time? Have you done so because they are delinquent in child support?
  • Have you prevented the other parent from calling or texting your child?
  • Have you made plans or scheduled activities for your child on the other parent’s placement time?
  • Have you moved out of Wisconsin despite their objection and without a court order?
  • Have you prevented your child from going to placement with the other parent in any way?
  • Have you engaged in conduct that influences your child against the other parent?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you could be at risk of violating Wisconsin statute. Similarly, the child’s other parent may be in violation if the other parent could answer “yes” as well. Note: The most common violation is when a parent keeps a child over the other parent’s placement time.

How to Build Your Case

In order to prove your case in family court, the aggrieved parent must be able to demonstrate the following:

  • There was an order for placement or visitation.
  • The terms of the order were clear.
  • The other parent willfully violated the terms of the order without compelling cause or justification.

If the court finds the non-compliant parent has unreasonably withheld placement, it will order additional visitation to make up for the time missed. The court may also order the non-compliant parent to pay the other parent’s attorney fees. In cases where there is a persistent, ongoing pattern of non-compliance with placement orders, the court may even order a change of placement.

Child Custody FAQ

How much does child custody mediation cost?

For couples that wish to settle their child custody issues outside the courtroom, mediation is the easiest & most cost effective option. The cost for divorce mediation in Wisconsin ranges from $800 to $3,500. Price is determined by the conditions of the parties divorce such as, shared debts, property, and children.

What is the difference between shared and sole child custody?

Shared custody or "joint custody" means that both parties share (50/50) legal custody, and unless specified by a judge, neither parties rights are superior. Sole custody means one parent has custody. Sole custody is not often granted unless both parties agree that custody should be given to one parent. Hire Divergent Family Law to fight for your parental rights.

How do I get full custody of my child?

If the other parent is unable to perform their parental duties, unwilling to take part in raising the child, or both parents are unable to come to an agreement on decision making required to co parent, then you may be able to get full custody. Hire the aggressive lawyers at Divergent to fight for your child custody rights.

How do I get joint custody?

File with the court, serve the other party with custody papers, and attend custody hearings. When both parties work out the parenting agreement before their court date, it's better for everyone involved. Try Divergent's mediation services for a cost-effective, stress-reduced option.

What is child support?

Child support is when a parent is obligated to designate financial support to their children. The guidelines Wisconsin uses to set up child support payment is called the percentage of income standard. This considers the income of the parent, amount of time the child spends with each parent, and if the parent is supporting other children.

How does child support work in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, child support payments are based on the income of the paying parent. Unique factors in your situation could increase the amount you have to pay including number of children, both parents income, placement schedules, etc. Hire our family lawyers to fight for your parental rights.

How is child support calculated in Wisconsin?

Child support is calculated based on the income of the paying parent and the number of children you have.

What determines who pays child support?

Which parent pays child support is determined on the placement of the child. If one parent has sole custody of the child, the other parent will need to pay child support. Check out Divergent's child custody calculator for an estimate on your monthly child support payments.

How much is child support in Wisconsin?

The cost of child support in Wisconsin depends on several factors specific to each custody case. If you have several children or have less than 25% of visitation rights, you may have to pay a higher amount in support.

Do child support payments automatically stop?

Child support payments automatically stop when children turn 18. The only exception for this is if the child is still in school, then payments will stop at 19.

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