In Wisconsin, Court files are generally open and subject to public inspection, as part of the state Open Records Law.   That is why a political news story yesterday caught my eye: a Judge in a Missouri congressman’s divorce sealed the file after a reporter asked to see it.  

Unless a Judge specifically orders otherwise, any person can go to a local Circuit Court Clerk of Courts office and ask to see a divorce file.  The entire file is an “open book,” save for a few documents.   We also have CCAP, part of the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access System, where a catalogue of most court filings is maintained in a public database.  The level of detail provided online as to the nature of the individual documents within a file seems to vary by county.

There are two documents which are not for public consumption:

  • Confidential Petition Addendum.  A couple of years ago, the law was (thankfully) changed to provide that instead of putting people’s social security numbers in the Petition for Divorce, that information goes into a separate Confidential Petition Addendum.   The Addendum is placed into a sealed Court file.  The Court, the parties to the case and their attorneys are entitled to access this information.
  • Financial Disclosure Statement.  All parties to divorce are required to file sworn statements setting forth information about their income, expenses, assets and liabilities.  This document, known as a Financial Disclosure Statement, goes into a sealed Court file.  Only the Court, the parties to the case and their attorneys are entitled to access this information.

In Wisconsin, upon request, the Judge decides whether or not to seal a file.  In my local area the sealing of entire divorce files is a relatively rare occurrence, as confirmed by the Appleton Post-Crescent when the paper conducted an investigation of court files in its four-county readership area (Calumet, Outagamie, Waupaca and Winnebago Counties) earlier this year.  

As a result, for most people, their divorce is an open book for anyone to read.  The type of information in an open divorce file often includes:

  • Home address;
  • Occupation and/or employer;
  • Date of marriage;
  • Names and dates of birth of minor children;
  • Whether or not anyone in the family is receiving public assistance;
  • Whether or not the wife is pregnant;
  • In a custody dispute, specific claims about the other spouse: abuse, neglect, alcohol/drug use, etc.
  • A description of the assets being awarded to each spouse;
  • A description of the debts being assigned to each spouse;
  • What the custody and placement arrangements are in a case, and why.

Should this information be for public consumption?  Does the availability of CCAP make a difference? I’d love to hear what you think.

One of the things clients are most concerned about is the length of time it will take for their divorce to be finalized.  Unfortunately, there is no real “standard” amount of time it takes to be divorced.  In Wisconsin, the minimum waiting period is 120 days from the date that the other spouse is served with the Petition for divorce or legal separation.  That’s about four months.  However, most divorces take longer than that.   On average, most divorces take six to eight months to be concluded. 

There are a number of variables which impact the length of time a divorce will take, but here are some of the most important ones:

1.  Whether or not there is a custody/placement dispute.   A custody or placement dispute is one of the biggest determining factors for the length of the divorce process.  Wisconsin law requires parents who disagree about custody or placement to attend mediation.  In most counties, a mediation orientation/educational class is required prior to the first “individual” mediation session with the parents.  In Outagamie County, for example, the orientation is only held once per month (“Children Caught in the Middle“).  Mediation itself takes time.  If mediation fails, the Court will appoint a Guardian ad Litem, and may order other custody evaluations, extending the process.  As a result, it is not uncommon for a fully contested placement dispute to take a year to wind its way through the system. 

2.  The complexity of the case.  The more complex the case, the longer it will take to conclude.  For example, if the marital estate includes a business, that business may need to be valued by an accountant.  If one spouse is claiming an asset is not subject to division because it was gifted or inherited, that gift or inheritance will have to be documented and traced. 

3.  The contentiousness of the case.  There is no doubt that the more issues in dispute, the longer the case will take.  The more time the parties and/or their attorneys spend fighting about issues large and small, the longer it takes them to be prepared to conduct a final divorce hearing.  There is also a direct relationship between the number of issues in dispute and the amount of court time required to present the case.  The more court time that is required, the further in advance the hearing needs to be set.

4.  The county in which the divorce is venued.  This doesn’t seem as though it should matter, but it does.  Some counties have local rules in place to keep divorces on track, while others do not.  Some counties have Judges assigned to hear only family court cases, while others have all Judges hear all types of cases.   Some counties automatically schedule Status or Scheduling Conferences, while others require the parties to request them.  Your attorney can give you an idea of how long a divorce may be expected to take in your particular county.

The other day, the ABA Journal published an article online about a Canadian case, entitled “Wean Toddler from Breast Milk or Use Machine, Judge Rules.”  In that case, the Judge decided that in order to facilitate dad spending time with the child, mom could either wean the nearly three year old or use a breast milk pump.

That got me thinking about the controversial role breastfeeding can play in placement disputes here in Wisconsin.  It can be a hot-button issue in the context of custody litigation.

Many times, mothers of young children balk at the concept of extended placement, or even overnight placement, with fathers if they are nursing.  Essentially, the argument is that breastfeeding is so important that it would be contrary to the child’s best interests to disrupt it, or at least to disrupt it too much.   The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly promotes breastfeeding for all of its benefits to both mother and child.   Additionally, mothers who breastfeed tend to promote the intense mother-child bond that develops as a result of the physical closeness.

On the other side of the coin, the father-child bond is just as important to facilitate and maintain, particularly when children are newborns and infants.  Nursing often means that children are unable to be away from their mothers for more than a few hours at a time, without either supplemental nutrition or bottle feeding with stored breastmilk.  Fathers wonder how they will bond with their children if they only see them for a few hours at a time, or are prohibited from having them overnight.  As a result, fathers may claim mothers use nursing as a weapon to keep them from from their children. 

These issues are often very difficult for Judges and Court Commissioners to deal with.  Their decisions have to be based on the facts of individual cases.   However, my own experience in the courtroom tells me that it is becoming more and more likely that judicial officials here will tell moms they had better start pumping.

Is this the right answer?  I don’t know that there is one magic answer to this dilemma.  It has to depend on the situation at hand.  Important factors will include:

  • Age of the child
  • Medical needs of the child
  • Whether or not mom works outside the home (if so, she is presumably already pumping — and that can cut both ways)
  • The placement proposals of each parent

Hopefully, whatever decisions are reached, they are in the best interests of the child.

If you live in Wisconsin, have a child and were never married to the other parent, you need a formal determination of paternity in order to establish certain legal rights and responsibilities.   This is true even if the father’s name is on the birth certificate, and even if the child is given the father’s last name.  This is true even if the parents are living together.  This is true even if the parents have a great co-parenting relationship without the “benefit” (hassle) of legal intervention.

If you are a father, here is some of what you are missing:

  • You have no legal custody rights;
  • You have no rights to physical placement (physical custody);
  • Your child has no right to inherit from you;
  • Your child has no right to receive social security benefits based upon your earnings record in the event of your death or disability;
  • You have no legal input in the selection of your child’s last name;
  • You have no right to collect child support;
  • You have no right to collect reimbursement for child-related expenses;
  • You have no right to claim the child as a dependent/exemption for income tax purposes

If you are a mother, here is some of what you are missing:

  • You have no right to collect child support;
  • You have no right to collect reimbursement for child-related expenses;
  • You have no right, as the child’s custodian, to receive social security benefits for the child in the event of the father’s death or disability

In Wisconsin, paternity can be established in one of two ways:  a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity or a formal court adjudication of paternity.  Many of my clients have called the voluntary acknowledgement paperwork the “blue form” they received in the hospital.  This is different from the birth certificate paperwork.   A voluntary acknowledgement has a binding, legal effect and is filed with the State of Wisconsin with other vital records.  For more information on voluntary acknowledgements, visit http://dcf.wisconsin.gov/bcs/path.htm.

If a voluntary acknowledgement is not possible, a court action may be started to have the Court make a formal adjudication of paternity.  Fathers and mothers both have standing to begin a paternity case.   If a parent is receiving public assistance (welfare benefits), the State of Wisconsin will typically file a paternity case in the courts.  Private divorce & family law attorneys, like me, also frequently assist clients in establishing paternity. 

For more information about establishing paternity, visit:

When I talk with people about family law issues, I find there are a lot of misconceptions held by the public about the way the system actually works.  One of the most common questions I receive is a variation of “At what age can my child decide which parent she wants to live with?”

Now, what is the correct answer to that question?

A.    12

B.     16

C.     The child always gets to decide

D.    None of the above

Believe it or not, the correct answer is “D!”  In Wisconsin Family Court, the only “magic age” is 18 – adulthood.  Once a child reaches 18, the Court loses jurisdiction over custody and placement matters (but not necessarily child support; that is a topic for another day). 

This is true for all cases in Family Court, which are cases regarding annulment, divorce, legal separation or paternity-related matters.  Juvenile Court and Probate Court work within a different set of statutes and rules, and the wishes of children may be given more weight in those forums.

That is not to say that children have no voice in Family Court.  As a child ages and matures, his or her opinion tends to be given greater weight by all of the professionals in Family Court.  But, under the law, children never have the final say.  

Is this fair?

Is this moral?

What do you think?