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.

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?