In Wisconsin, the legal terminology to describe physical custody of a child in Family Court matters is “physical placement.” During a parent’s periods (times) of physical placement, the child is either with the parent or under that parent’s care. The parent with physical placement has the right and responsibility to make routine, daily decisions about the child’s care. Examples of such routine decisions would be what the child eats for lunch, what the child wears to school that day and whether the child can go on a play date after school. These routine daily decisions are within the sole discretion of the parent with placement, as long as they do not contradict the “major” decisions which must be made jointly by parents with joint legal custody.

While state law does not require or presume that placement between parents be equal, it does require that the court maximize the amount of time that a child spends with each parent, while taking into consideration geography and individual household accommodations. All Court decisions are to be consistent with what the Judge deems to be the best interests of the child.

As a result, there are many different types of schedules for physical placement. In some families, one parent may have the majority of the placement time. This is often referred to as “primary” physical placement.   It is important to note that a designation of “primary” physical placement gives a parent no additional rights or responsibilities, other than that parent has more time in which he or she is responsible for routine decision-making.  Major decision-making is always controlled by the designation of legal custody.

In other families, the time is more evenly divided between parents, and this is usually called “shared” physical placement.   The time can be divided in any manner which makes sense for an individual family.  Some parents exchange the children weekly, while others do so every couple of days.  Parents should take their individual circumstances as well as the ages and needs of their children into account in developing a schedule. 

Regardless, in most cases, there is a “regular” or typical physical placement schedule, and then specified deviations for holidays and vacations. Some families have schedules for physical placement that are very detailed, indicating exact days, times, drop off locations and other particulars. Others are more flexible, which rely upon cooperation and good communication between parents. The greater the conflict between parents, the more specific the schedule should be. Ultimately, the way a schedule is designed is really only limited by the parents’ (or their attorneys’) imagination, subject to the approval of the Judge assigned to the case.

Legal Custody: The Basics

September 14, 2009

Parents who are divorcing are usually concerned about their “custody” rights.  In Wisconsin, the term “legal custody” is not the same as “physical custody.” 

Legal custody  is the legal terminology describing the legal right to make major decisions about your children and their upbringing.  The law specifically sets forth some of the major decisions, including:

  • decisions regarding consent to marry;
  • consent to enter military service;
  • consent to obtain a driver’s license;
  • authorization for routine health care;
  • choice of school; and
  • choice of religious upbringing.

This is not an exhaustive list of major decisions.  The Court may determine that other decisions affecting a child’s life are major decisions.  For example, the choice of a work-related child care provider is typically viewed as a major decision. 

Wisconsin law presumes that legal custody should be granted to parents jointly.  Joint legal custody means that both parents have an equal right to be an involved participant in major decision-making.  

However, upon request, if the Court finds that it would be in the best interests of a child, the sole legal custody may be awarded to one parent.   If a parent is granted sole legal custody, that parent alone has the right to make major decisions. 

Joint legal custody requires cooperation and communication between parents.  This can be a challenge.  Unless the Court has specifically granted one parent with joint legal custody the sole right to make certain types of major decisions, both parents must agree.

If the parents disagree, it is best for them to try to resolve the disagreement.  Involving third parties is always more time consuming and involves more emotional and financial cost. 

Typically, the first alternative is to seek the assistance of a mediator.  Wisconsin law requires that legal custody disputes are mediated.  Most Wisconsin counties have mediation services readily available to parents facing a dispute about legal custody issues, for relatively low-cost.   Parents may also be referred to co-parenting counseling, where they will learn communication tools in dealing with one another.

If parents are unable to agree upon major decisions, even with the assistance of a third party, they will have to go to Court.  Then, the Judge will decide which parent will be the ultimate decision-maker, at least as to the disputed issue.   In many cases, although a parent may technically “win” or “lose” the case, it is the child who really loses.

In Wisconsin, child support is calculated based upon the number of minor children, the parents’ income and the parents’ physical placement time with the children.  All support calculations are based upon the “Percentage of Income Standard,” found in the Wisconsin Administrative Code at DCF Chapter 150

The most basic child support calculation is based solely on the percentage standard.  Under this method, the amount of child support paid is based upon a certain percentage of the paying parent’s gross income.  The percentage of monthly income assumed to be available for child support is as follows:

  • 17% for one child;
  • 25% for two children;
  • 29% for three children;
  • 31% for four children;
  • 34% for five or more children.

More complex calculations come into play in certain circumstances.  The most common of these is probably the “shared placement” calculation.  This is a modified formula which applies when both parents have court ordered periods of placement of at least 25% (or 92 days per year).  Under the shared placement formula, both parents’ incomes are taken into account, in relation to overnight placement, to arrive at a net child support amount.  In addition to the child support payment, parents are typically ordered to pay for a percentage of “variable costs” incurred on behalf of the children – child care, tuition, extra-curricular activities, and the like.  A shared placement child support calculator published by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families is available online

Another situation which calls for a modification of the percentage standard is that of a “serial family payer.”  A serial family payer is one who has a prior legal obligation for child support.  For example, a parent who is divorcing but has a child from a previous marriage may qualify for serial family payer status in calculating support for the children from the second marriage. 

Infrequently, parents decide to split up their children after a divorce with one or more children residing with each parent.  To address these situations, there is a special provision in the child support formulas for calculating support for these “split-placement parents.”  As in shared placement cases, both parents’ incomes are considered relative to the number of children and the placement.

If a parent is considered to be “high” or “low” income, modifications to the formulas are made as well. 

If none of the above “special” circumstances apply, and a parent feels more or less child support is appropriate for the situation, that parent may request what is known as a “deviation” from the formula.  A deviation may provide more or less support than the application of the formula would indicate.  The factors that the Court may consider in deviation include (but are not limited to):

  • the financial resources of the child;
  • the financial resources of both parents;
  • maintenance payments received by either party;
  • the needs of any person whom either party is legally obligated to support;
  • the standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the marriage stayed intact;
  • the cost of child care;
  • special health needs of the child.

Deviations are rare, but may be appropriate in certain situations.  It is up to the Judge to decide whether to grant the deviation, based upon the evidence presented.

For more information about how child support may be calculated in your case, please contact an experienced divorce and family law attorney.

Beginning August 3, 2009, same-sex couples in Wisconsin will be able to register for domestic partnerships with their local County Clerks.  This controversial new law was created with the state budget signed into law by Governor Doyle on June 29, 2009.  While domestic partnership is not the same as a “same sex marriage” or a “civil union,” it does afford couples more rights and protections than existed under prior law, including:

  • rights to inheritance
  • rights to family and medical leave
  • hospital visitation privileges

To register, couples will need to go to the County Clerk’s office in the county where they reside, complete a sworn affidavit and pay a fee.  There is a 5 day waiting period, which may be waived for a fee at the discretion of the Clerk.  Upon the expiration of the 5 day waiting period, the County Clerk issues a declaration to the couple.  The declaration must then be signed, notarized, and filed with the county Register of Deeds.  The declaration is maintained as a vital record – much as a birth certificate, death certificate, etc.

The advocacy group Fair Wisconsin has published a reference guide  on their website as a resource for couples seeking more information about the new law.  The Winnebago County Clerk’s office has also posted an extensive set of FAQs to assist those seeking to register or dissolve a domestic partnership.

Because the law does not treat a domestic partnership as a marriage (in fact, Wisconsin has a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage), the “regular” divorce laws do not apply upon dissolution of a domestic partnership.  However, an experienced divorce and family lawyer can assist same-sex and opposite-sex partners in resolving many types of disputes upon the termination of a relationship using pre-existing law regarding property rights.

Have a (Parenting) Plan

June 29, 2009

Many people, particularly dads, come into the office with the idea that they would like to have “50/50″ in regards to custody and physical placement arrangements.  Shared parenting is a lofty goal.   However, for some people, it is difficult to come up with concrete details as to how a shared parenting proposal would actually work in practice.

This is where the Parenting Plan can be helpful.    A Parenting Plan is a relatively new creature of law.  It is designed to explain to all parties and the Court exactly how a parent’s proposed legal custody and physical placement will operate in real life.  It covers many parenting topics, including:

  • Education
  • Health care
  • Child care
  • Holidays
  • Transportation

Section 767.41 (1m) of the Wisconsin Statutes requires moms and dads to file a Parenting Plan with the Court under certain circumstances.  But whether or not a parent is required to file a formal plan, it is a good idea for parents to review the questions addressed within the plan and be prepared to answer them, whether it be to an attorney, Guardian ad Litem or Judge.   Knowing answers to these questions helps parents organize their thoughts and communicate more clearly. 

Prepared, knowledgeable and organized parents are in a better position to achieve results in Court.   It also prepares them be more effective co-parents with their exes in the long run.  Isn’t that what children of divorce deserve?

Bird Nesting

June 23, 2009

The media is all about the Gosselin divorce  today. Apparently, the infamous Jon and Kate are going to “bird nest.”  This is an arrangement where the children stay in the family home while their parents are going through a divorce.  Meanwhile, the parents rotate in and out of the house during their respective physical placement time with the kids.  

The parents must make arrangements for alternate housing during their “off” time.  Often, they stay with friends or family members.  One of the benefits of bird-nesting is that it is the adults, rather than the children, who are inconvenienced by having to pack bags and move back and forth between two residences.  When so many things about their lives are changing, having the constancy of their home can be a source of comfort to children.  When finances are tight, many divorcing couples feel that bird-nesting for a short time affords them the opportunity to “save” some money to enable the departing spouse to obtain more permanent housing.

For all of its potential benefits, Courts usually do not require bird nesting because it is fraught with the potential for problems.  Many of the same disputes that were present in the intact household remain a source of conflict during bird-nesting.  Disputes may arise over such issues as:

  • One spouse ate some of the groceries purchased by the other;
  • One spouse did not maintain the house or yard “properly” during her time;
  • One spouse went through the other’s mail or other personal effects;
  • One spouse had “friends” over for a party.

Despite the potential for these types of conflicts, when parents agree that a bird-nesting arrangement would be best for their children, courts will usually endorse such a plan on a temporary basis.  This is particularly so when the case appears to be relatively low-conflict.  The more even-tempered the individuals, the less likely that problems like those cited above will create major disputes.

Regardless of the circumstances, the bird nest tends to be a poor long-term solution, especially when it is only being done due to tight financial conditions.  Therefore, if a bird nest arrangement is in place, it is for a very short period of time, and usually ends before the divorce is finalized.

Many states have adopted laws under which grandparents who have been estranged from their grandchildren may obtain formal visitation rights to see them.  These laws are a variation of the concept that Courts may intervene and allow such visitation even if it occurs over the objection of the custodial parent. 

Wisconsin law provides conditions under which grandparents may be able to obtain formal grandparent visitation rights with their grandchildren.  One example of this is where one of the parents has died.  In that unfortunate situation, a grandparent has the right to petition the Court for visitation rights under a special statute, Section 54.56.   If, after a hearing, the Court finds that it would be in the best interests of the child to have visitation with the grandparent, some amount of visitation can be granted. 

Most grandparents use the legal system as a last resort, and for good reason.  In a contest between a parent and a grandparent, the parent’s judgment is given great deference.  Many times, grandparents will find that they are able to see their grandchildren more often by simply trying to maintain a good relationship with the surviving parent, rather than running to the courthouse.

The cases that end up in litigation tend to be those where the relationship between extended family members is already irreparably damaged.  These cases always seem to be very difficult for everyone involved.   Unfortunately, there are no standard formulas or guidelines for judges to follow, and no magic solutions.   Parents have a constitutionally protected right to raise their children as they see fit.  But when a child has already lost a parent, should she lose her grandparents, too? 

Whether or not a grandparent has a “good” case for visitation is dependent upon the facts and circumstances.  Good resources for grandparents wanting to learn more about their potential rights include an informational pamphlet published by the UW-Extension, and the AARP website.  An experienced Wisconsin family law attorney can provide legal advice specific to a particular situation.

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