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.

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.

Under Wisconsin law, parents are required to attend at least one session of mediation whenever legal custody and/or physical placement is at issue, with little exception.  The purpose of mediation is to try to help parents resolve their disagreements without having to go through a full-blown custody battle.  

Most parents are able to reach agreement in mediation, which shields children from much of the emotional trauma a prolonged custody battle brings.  To maximize the potential for success, parents need to be prepared to discuss a variety of topics regarding their children at mediation.  At a minimum, parents should be prepared to discuss the following topics:

  • The legal custody arrangement you are requesting, and why you feel it is best for your child.
  • The physical placement (physical custody) arrangements you want in place and why you believe those arrangements are best for your child.  Be thoughtful about a specific proposed schedule and how you suggest transportation be handled.  
  • A holiday and vacation schedule.
  • Your relationship with your child, the activities you enjoy doing together, your philosophy of discipline.
  • The other parent’s relationship with the child.
  • Your child’s personality, routines, likes and dislikes, friends, teachers, activities, health care providers, etc.
  • Where you work and the hours of your employment.
  • Proposed child care providers when you and/or the other parent are unavailable.
  • How the child will be able to contact the other parent, and vice versa during periods of physical placement.
  • How you are following through with the child’s religious commitment, if any.
  • Concerns you have regarding the fitness of the other parent, including any abusive behavior, drinking and drug issues, lack of past contact and concern, etc.
  • Concerns you have regarding any other members of the other parent’s household and how your concerns affect the best interests of your child. 
  • How you intend to address problems you may have had in the past.
  • Actions you intend to take to address concerns raised by either the other parent or the mediators.
  • How you have communicated with the other parent, and how that could change/improve in the future.

Focus on what is best for your child or children.  Try to refrain from bad-mouthing the other parent.  If your circumstances dictate that you must raise serious concerns about the other parent, be prepared to cite specific examples of conduct.

For advice on issues specific to your case, you should contact an experienced divorce and family law attorney.

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:

Clients commonly wonder what factors courts consider in making decisions about legal custody and physical placement of children in a divorce.  Section 767.41 is the relevant Wisconsin Statute to this determination.  See: 

http://nxt.legis.state.wi.us/nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates&fn=default.htm&d=stats&jd=767.41

Under the statute, the Court is required to consider “all facts relevant to the best interest of the child.”  The following are the specific factors described in the law:

  • The wishes of the parents;
  • The wishes of the child;
  • The interaction an interrelationship of the child with family members and any others who significantly affect the child’s best interest;
  • The amount and quality of time each parent has spent with the child in the past, and proposed changes a parent wishes to make to spend time with the child in the future;
  • The child’s adjustment to home, school, religion and community;
  • The age of the child and the child’s developmental and educational needs at different ages;
  • Whether the mental or physical health of a party, minor child or other person living in a proposed household negatively affects the child’s well-being;
  • The need for regularly occurring and meaningful periods of placement to provide predictabilty and stability for the child;
  • The availability of child care services;
  • The cooperation and communication between the parties, and whether one party unreasonably refuses to cooperate or communicate with the other;
  • Whether each party can support the other party’s relationship with the child;
  • Whether there is evidence that a party abused the child;
  • Whether a person dating a parent or living in the proposed household has abused the child, or another child;
  • Whether there has been interspousal battery or domestic abuse;
  • Whether either party has or had a significant problem with alcohol or drug abuse;
  • The reports of outside professionals if admitted into evidence; and
  • Such other factors as the court may in each individual case determine to be relevant.

If you are involved in custody litigation, be prepared to address all of the above factors.  In my opinion, it is very important is that the Court may consider any factor determined to be relevant to the best interest of the child.   If a factor important to your case is not specifically listed by statute, show the Court how that information is relevant to your particular circumstances.