Terminating Parental Rights in Wisconsin

As a divorce attorney, I have been asked many times by clients if they can terminate the parental rights of the other parent.  I have also been asked by a parent whether they can voluntarily terminate his or her parental rights.  Usually, this question is posed out of frustration or anger at the other parent.  Or, one of the parents does not want to pay child support so they make this request.

In Wisconsin, the termination of parental rights of only one parent at the request of the other generally cannot happen unless there is an accompanying step-parent adoption.  In other words, the parental rights of a parent cannot be terminated unless there is a new parent ready and willing to step into that role.  Wisconsin’s policy is that a child is entitled to have two legal parents to support them.

And, the willingness of a step-parent to adopt is not enough to trigger a termination of parental rights if the other parent does not agree.  There are necessary grounds to be established for an involuntary termination of parental rights.  For example, the most common ground is abandonment which is defined as a failure to visit or communicate for a period longer than three (3) months, unless good cause is shown as to why the parent failed to visit or communicate (i.e. denial or interference of periods of placement).  Other grounds are failure to assume parental responsibility, abuse, incest, sexual assault, homicide or attempted homicide of the other parent and a parent who has a continuing disability.

Even if all of the above criteria are met, the court must then consider other factors when deciding to terminate parental rights.  These factors include what is in the best interests of the child, the child’s family relationships (i.e. grandparents),  the wishes of the child and whether the child can enter into a new stable family situation as a result of the termination.

Permanently terminating a parent’s rights to his or her children is a serious and life-changing event for both parent and child.  Frustration with your ex-spouse or an unwillingness to see your children or pay child support is not enough to trigger this most serious of actions.  Under Wisconsin law, the rights of the child are paramount and a child is entitled to two legal parents.  This is true regardless of the feelings of one parent towards the other and regardless if a parent has no interest in the child(ren) and/or does not want to pay child support.

-Teri M Nelson

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47 Comments on “Terminating Parental Rights in Wisconsin”

  1. Megan Says:

    My childs father is willing to sign over his parental rights to my new husband. He hasn’t seen our daughter in almost a year and isn’t current with his child support payments. I would like to terminate his rights but I’m not sure how to go about doing this. I don’t feel I need a lawyer because he is 100% willing to terminate. What steps do I have to take to get this started?

    • nelsonda Says:

      Hello. Thank you for your question. If you are in Wisconsin and would like to do a step-parent adoption, the first thing you need to do is to obtain a custody study. This is required in Wisconsin. You can call any social service agency in your area. For example, in Milwaukee, there is Children Service Society or Lutheran Counseling and Family Services. It should be listed in the phone book under Adoption Services or Social Service and Welfare Organizations. Some agencies will handle the paperwork for you, some won’t. You might want to call around to get different quotes and find out what they will do for you. There is a fee but I am not sure what they are charging now. It has been a long time since I did an adoption. Good luck to you.

      • Megan Says:

        Thank you. This is more information than I’ve gotten anywhere else.
        How do I go about terminating his rights though? Like I said, he’s willing but I don’t know how to go about starting the process.

        • nelsonda Says:

          You do everything at the same time. The court will not terminate his rights without an accompanying step-parent adoption because they do not want to leave your child with no legal father to support him/her. So, the process is concurrent with the adoption. The Petition to Terminate Parental Rights is filed and heard at the same time as the Petition for Step-parent Adoption and one won’t be granted without the other. Again, however, before you can even get to the legal proceedings, you must have a custody study done.

  2. alex Says:

    I just found out I’m pregnant with and on and off casual partner that I’ve had for the last year. I told him and the first thing he said was that he would ‘sign off his rights’ if I had the child. Is it that easy to get out of taking responsibility and pay child support? If he doesn’t want to be in his child’s life that’s one thing but can he really just ‘sign off his rights’ and not pay child support because he doesn’t want the child?

    • nelsonda Says:

      Thank you for your comments. No, he can’t just sign off the rights to his child just because he doesn’t want to pay child support. First, if anyone would petition to terminate his rights, it must be you, not him. Second, there must be an accompanying step-parent adoption. The State will not leave a child without a legal father to support him/her. As you said, if he doesn’t want to be in the child’s life, that is his choice but he must pay child support pursuant to the law in Wisconsin.

      Good luck to you.

  3. Jennifer Says:

    My ex-husband has not paid any child support or had anything to do with our son in over 2 years. IHe tells me our son is mine and he wants nothin to do with our loser son. What if anything can I do?

    • nelsonda Says:

      Of course there is. You can take him back to court either to establish/modify child support or to find him in contempt for failing to pay if there already is an order. You can’t force him to see your child but that is probably best if that is his attitude towards your son. You should consult with an experienced family law attorney in your area. In the alternative, contact the Child Support Enforcement Agency in the county in which you live. It is their job to establish and/or collect child support. They will do it for free, after you sign up for their services. There generally is a fee for that but it is usually around $50. After that, there are no further costs to you. Good luck.

  4. Andren Says:

    My ex wife has made it abundantly clear she wants nothing to do with me and has alienated the children, using many false allegations which in WI automatically prevent visitation. These have been continuous and almost predictably strategic. The children are now 8 and 9 and state verbally whenever I try contact with them despite a number of years trying to enforce orders. That I beat them, leave bruises and hit them in their privates. They also state that they hate me with a passion, and I have never ever successfully been able to exercise any rights as a father.

    I have never ever done anything wrong to these children and they are now apparently or so I am told under intense therapy. While it is alleged that I have abused them, despite never doing so. I even had a judge plainly state so, Regardless, I am at a loss as to how without any money to continue to fight both the many state agencies she can call on, and pay the fees that each of these allegations cost me. She has maintained all along that if I give up my rights she will stop making these allegations up. I believe for the sake of the children I should give up my rights, as I am not going to see them as they tell me, until they are eighteen, the previous psychologist stated that I would be lucky If I ever saw them again anyway.

    • nelsonda Says:

      I am sorry for your troubles and the situation in which you find yourself. It is very sad. I hope you have the assistance of good counsel.

      Unfortunately, the court will most likely still not allow you to terminate your parental rights without an accompanying adoption. You can certainly try but the only way around this is to have her petition to terminate your parental rights based on child abuse. Even then, it may be difficult and you would have to not object to the abuse allegations.

      You should consult with an experienced attorney in your area to find out what the judge(s) do in this situation.

  5. Xiong Says:

    My ex-boyfriend is doing the very minimum to have contact in case it takes a while until I serve him adoption papers because I don’t have a wedding date yet and he might get granted fifty-fifty custody. The only reason and time he makes an effort to see my son is when child support is after him for not paying; then he throws in his statement that he wants to see his son. He is not working so he hopes that if he ever gets granted fifty-fifty I will have to pay him child support because he is unemployed and I work full time. My question is that because he doesn’t care to be in my son’s life nor do I want him to be in my son’s life because he is not fit for society as is, can I petition for him to sign his rights over to a family member of mine because I’m not married yet?

  6. Blake Says:

    I have a niece that is 2 years old. Her mother hasn’t seen her in about a year. And my half brother hasn’t seen her in about 3 months. They are both very unfit parents. They both have been in and out of jail for drugs, alcohol, and other reasons. My niece is currently with my mother who is also not the best role model. She has also been in and out of jail. I am 26, have a good job, well educated, not married, have never been in jail, come from a wealthy family, and I’m very willing to take my niece. What can I do?

    • nelsonda Says:

      Thank you for your interest in our blog and your comment. You should meet with an attorney who is experienced in children’s court cases and guardianships. Your best bet is probably to call social services and advise them of your concerns as well as your willingness to step in as guardian. The only other option is to seek a guardianship. However, guardianships are very difficult to obtain, especially if you do not have the backing of social services. An attorney can discuss all of your options with you, though, and advise you of your chances for success in the county in which you live.

  7. Mary Says:

    My boyfriend has been wanting to sign off his rights on his son, and was denied legal assistance. is it even possible for him to do so voluntarily? How would he go about it?

    • nelsonda Says:

      He can only do so if (a) the mom agrees and (b) her new spouse adopts the child. Otherwise, he cannot step away from his parental rights and/or responsibilities.

  8. mya Says:

    Hello,
    i had my daughter 3 months ago and me and her dad broke up not too long ago, he was at first in her life and helping me but then he turned the tables and went back to his first childs mother, he doesnt help me take care of her because she doesnt accept my child. He said that he will sign over his rights, is it that easy and simple to sign over his rights? and do i have to consent to it because if so, i will not give him or his girlfriend that satisfaction.

    • nelsonda Says:

      If you have not yet taken him to court to establish paternity, you will need to do that in order to obtain child support. However, keep in mind that by doing that, he will also then have custody and placement rights. He has no legal rights or obligations towards your child until he has been formally adjudicated the father. Therefore, there would be no reason for him to “sign off of his rights.”

      If you do take him to court, he cannot stop it nor does he need to consent. The only thing he can do to be difficult is to request DNA testing to confirm he is the father. After he is formally adjudicated, he cannot sign off on his rights unless (a) you consent AND (b) there is another father waiting to take his place (a stepparent adoption). The courts will not leave a child without a legal father just because he doesn’t want the responsibility.

      If you decide to start paternity proceedings, contact the Child Support Enforcement Agency in your county. They will assist you with that for a nominal fee.

  9. Charles Says:

    my girlfriend and I broke up a few months before she had our son. she never told me she had him kept everything hush hush I just got served paternity papers, is it possible that I can get 50/50 custody or only visitation since we weren’t married?

    • nelsonda Says:

      Absolutely! All things being equal and with no significant issues, there is no reason why you shouldn’t have shared placement just because you weren’t married to the mother. There are a variety of factors the court must consider when making a shared placement determination. Depending on his age, though, you may have to slowly work you way up to more substantial placement. You can’t expect to be given equal placement right away if that child doesn’t know you. You need to ask the court to order at least some placement right away so you can get to know your son and start working towards that goal. For the best results, you should hire an experienced family law attorney as soon as possible. Good luck to you.

  10. Katie Says:

    My husband fathered a child with another woman before we were together. My husband has had full custody and physical placement of the him since he was 2 years old. We have not heard from the child’s mother basically since the court for custody and he is now almost 7 years old. My husband and I would really like to have me adopt him so that I have rights to him. I have been acting as his mother since my husband and I have been together (since the child was 1). We have no idea where his birth mother is or how to contact her. Do you think I have a chance at this?

    • nelsonda Says:

      You absolutely have a chance at adopting. In fact, this is exactly the situation which is made for step-parent adoptions. As far as finding her, all you have to do is make an “good faith” effort and the courts usually accept that even if you can’t find her. I would contact a social service agency who handles adoptions in your area to inquire about and begin the process. You can find one in the yellow pages under Adoption Services. Good luck to you!

  11. Kayla Says:

    Hi, my daughter is 6yrs old and her biological father Has seen her 2 times because I told the time to take her to him, 8hrs away. He has not given her a card, a present, or even called on holidays or birthdays. Out of the 6yrs, he’s paid a little support. But, my fiancé has been raising her as his own since she was 3months old. Been there for everything, he is the one she calls dad.
    My question is how hard or is it possible for him to adopt her? We’re not married and I don’t even know if it’s possible to have him adopt. Any advice? Her biological dad would be more than willing to sign them over. We’re not married because of health insurance reasons. My daughter has health issues. Any help or advice is appreciated, thank you.

    • nelsonda Says:

      Thank you for your question and comments. Your fiance would only be able to adopt after you are married. Once you are married, it sounds as if it would be a fairly simple matter to adopt. All of the criteria are present here. If he doesn’t adopt, then you certainly should prepare a will naming him as her legal guardian if you pass away. This wouldn’t necessarily prevent bio dad from arguing he should have her but it sets up your legal intentions at least and gives your fiance the legal grounds to fight for her. Good luck to you.

  12. MB Says:

    In the case of voluntarily TPR with an adopting father waiting, is there any way that the court will grant the termination if the Mother is not yet married to the father with intent to adopt. I am in a process now trying get something like that done, and don’t want to waste the time and money filing a petition of the court is going to say that the mother and intent to adopt father most be married

    • nelsonda Says:

      It is extremely unlikely. The courts want a child to have a stable parental situation. The first step, however, is to have a home study done. You need to contact a social services agency in your area (look under adoptive services in the phone book). They must do an investigation and background check and issue a report to the court as to recommendations for the adoption. Once you speak with them, they gave give you a better idea as to whether they will recommend or whether the court would approve your petition.

  13. Kayla Says:

    Hi.
    My sons are 12 and 10 and their biological father has only been in their lives for a total of 3 years (2 of which we lived in MI with him for; 2009-2011). When I decided to move back to WI, he didn’t challenge me, he just wanted me to leave my car and I could take the kids. Since then, he has only been in contact with them 3 times, and that’s because they contacted him. I am getting married on March 1, 2014 and my fiance wants to adopt them, but their bio dad refuses. He’s only paid $200 in child support (he’s over $11,000 behind) and during our divorce, gave up any type of custody/visitation, giving me sole legal custody and placement. My ex-husband is known to do drugs and I know my sons would not be safe with him; they don’t want anything to do with him and want to be adopted by my fiance. My sons also have special needs; my 12 year old has a form of autism and my 10 year old has Type 1 diabetes. My ex’s family also has nothing to do with my sons; my family (who live here in WI) are the ones that have been involved from the beginning and that my children are extremely close to. Since their bio dad is refusing to sign off his rights, but has no contact with them, what are my chances of his rights being terminated so my fiance can adopt them? Thank you!

    • nelsonda Says:

      There are specific ground for an involuntary termination of parental rights in Wisconsin. You should consult with an attorney who is experienced in this area to determine if your situation qualifies. Good luck.

    • nelsonda Says:

      There are specific ground for an involuntary termination of parental rights in Wisconsin. You should consult with an attorney who is experienced in this area to determine if your situation qualifies. Good luck.

  14. Julia Says:

    My husband and I have 2 small children. He just found out that he has a 5 year old daughter out of a one night stand. We live out of state from the child (she lives in WI) and barely knows the mother. Our other issue is, my husband suffers from PTSD. He has JUST been diagnosed and is just starting the process of therapy and meds to alleviate the symptoms of this. He was fired from his job and can’t even being to focus on how to handle this situation. Any advice? I understand he can not voluntarily give up his rights, but what about if the mother chooses too? What about mental state? Is that an issue? Thank you for your advice.

    • nelsonda Says:

      Wow! Tough situation. I am not quite sure what you are asking. He certainly can give up his parental rights if both parties agree. As to the rest, I would need more facts to determine exactly what it is you are asking and what the answer is. Is there even an action pending? If not, there isn’t much to worry about at this point from a legal perspective. If so, you should consult with an experienced family law attorney in the county in which the action is pending to discuss the facts and all of his options. Good luck.

  15. Cecil Miles Says:

    My ex is trying to have my rights terminated the session went against her I kept my rights now I’m in a appeal I would like to know if I may have my rights terminated I got a lawyer but he is up in the air with everything she left before she told me she was pregnant we lived in fl. At the time of conseption and she moved to with for the birth we were in contact up until October 23 2013 she cut off contact and is now saying I didn’t support her during pregnancy I don’t know the statue on that and would like to know my chances of getting my son she is also trying to adopt him out

    • nelsonda Says:

      I’m not entirely sure what your question is and this is a complicated situation. Your best bet is to either listen to your attorney or if he/she isn’t sure, obtain new counsel who is experienced in this area. Good luck to you.

  16. rsicard Says:

    I’m not sure if my comment came through so my apologies for any duplications.

    My situation is similar to many who have noted their stories so far. My question is more about state to state adoptions. My daughter was born in WI. My marriage and divorce to her father happened in WI as well but I’ve lived in WA with my daughter since she was about 2 (she is now 14). My ex husband has never had visitation, has never called, sent a card or gift, nor has ever had any relationship with her in any manner. I am now remarried and my husband, daughter & I would like to move forward with adoption.

    What I don’t know is if we have to do the adoption through WI? The divorce and parenting plan is through WI family courts but the marriage and our residence is in WA. What is the best route to take? Thank you for your advice.

  17. Ashley Ruberg Says:

    My ex wants to voluntarily terminate his rights. I am in 100% agreement with this. I am engaged, and when I do get married my fiancé plans on adopting her. My question is this, is there any way my ex can voluntarily terminate his rights even if I am not married if we both agree on the termination of his rights?

    • nelsonda Says:

      Generally, the courts will not allow a termination without an accompanying step-parent adoption because they do not want to leave the child without a legal father in the interim. Sorry.

  18. Andren Says:

    I am a father trying to maintain contact with the children of my former marriage. I posted once regarding the issues I was facing. I spoke to the GAL appointed by the judge. She basically told me that even if the mother was using the way the system is constructed, whether she rules in my favor or not, She explained that the situation according to WI law and the way it is practiced is always for the mother to continue to interfere with custody as long as she is able to make false allegations or convince the children to state things that are not true or act as gatekeeper on visitation issues or contact..

    In which case the state will always investigate by mandate and I will not see the children until this is cleared and then by default the court will rule that the children will require a long time of supervised visitation until a professional who must be paid fees authorizes the children are no longer estranged or that the children are not abused.

    The previous GAL forced a reduction in parenting time by representing the mother in court on a separate issue regarding placement and told me that she was going to change the custody arrangement based on the mother getting a new job,and when I went to court the judge told me despite my objections that he will do it by Fiat because he can. I stated that it was not right and that the GAL should not be representing the mother in court as well as the children it is unethical. GAL stated outside the court that I should allow the mother to adopt the children to her new husband as that would be the best option for me, and the court evaluator stated that I will always have problems if I do not agree to every other weekend. Is that normal ?

    The current court recommended I go through the child therapists that the mother is using, but I have never been able to get an appointment other than some initial details of the children’s progress and the therapists keep changing as well as well as the schools..The first GAL even phoned the then therapist while I was present with the mother to tell her to not treat the children for sexual abuse or any abuse whatever that means.

    One court ruled that I was an ineffective father, because I could not get the children on a visitation, Along with ordering that I have no input into their education or any medical issues only the mother. The new court ruled that I am too rigid in trying to enforce the court order as it stands and recommends I use therapists. to resolve the problem.

    The last attorney I used stated that the law is unfair to males in general and stated that after the false allegations are made the procedure was to have supervised visitation to which I complied and I became suspicious of his motives when he stated that ‘we’ thought it was impossible for you to perform the stipulation and afford the costs, and I am currently having no luck getting therapists involved as she keeps changing them..

    Any suggestions on what to do next. I have no part in creating the problem other than making a bad choice in marriage but that is not the children’s fault neither and they should not be made to suffer because of those choices. I did not divorce my children..

    • nelsonda Says:

      I’m sorry but there is no way that I can give you any advice or information your situation without having all of the facts. It sounds as if this is a long-standing case with a lot of history. You need to talk with an experienced family law attorney in your area to go through everything with you to give you a better idea of what you should do and the outcomes you may face. Good luck.

  19. Mrs. Hall Says:

    My friend has been in prison most of his life. However he was recently released. He received papers stating that he is the father of a girl that will be turning 18 in June. The mother never made him aware of the fact that he could have been the father or even attempted to contact him. Now she wants to take him to court for child support because the guy she told was the dad found out he wasn’t. Can they make him pay child support back to the birth? I feel like if the mother withheld him from trying to have a relationship and lied about it he shouldn’t have to go back and pay for her dumb choices. He lives in Wisconsin. What do you think he should do or what options does he have?

    • nelsonda Says:

      The law in Wisconsin used to allow for retroactive child support in these cases but it was changed a while ago. They can only order child support back to the date he was notified he was the father. However, it doesn’t matter where he lives, it matters where the mother and child lives. Also, if she is graduating high school in June, it is a moot issue since his child support obligation would end when she turns 18 anyway. Your friend should seek the assistance of an experienced family attorney for the best advice.

      • Mrs. Hall Says:

        Do you know when that law was established and do you know the statue.? Again we are in the state of Wisconsin. He would like to bring it up when he goes to court just in case. As the mother has contacted him stating she is going to make sure he pays her every penny due if it takes him the rest of his life.

        • nelsonda Says:

          The statute is: 767.(4), Wis. Stats. and specifically says “Liability for past support of the child is limited to support for the period after the day on which the petition in the action is filed unless a party shows that he or she was induced to delay the commencement of the action. There are definitions and factors in the rest of the statute which addresses “induced to delay”. Your friend should consult with an attorney.

  20. Natasha Says:

    My sons father wants to sign his rights off. He said that he cannot financially support him and he is to stressed. He also asked if my boyfriend can adopt him. Is that possible if we are not married? My boyfriend loves and takes care of my son as his own and he is willing to take on the responsibility. What can I do?

    • nelsonda Says:

      I wouldn’t worry too much about your son’s father. It is his dilemma. Many people feel like they can’t pay child support but that is their obligation when they father a child. I am sure it is financially stressful for you to have to support your child too. As far as your specific question is concerned, no your boyfriend cannot adopt your son without being married to you first. Sorry.

  21. saraeileen Says:

    Hello,
    I am wondering if parental rights even need to be terminated in the case of no paternity being established. At this point none has been established and my son turned two in March. I am married and my husband would like to adopt but I am confused if there is a need to deal with any parental rights termination if no father figure has been there nor has any paperwork been filed regarding custody.

    Thank You

    • nelsonda Says:

      Yes, parental rights always need to be terminated. Even if there is no adjudication of paternity yet, the father could file a request at any time and, if he is the father, he would be adjudicated. Therefore, he has parental rights, whether they are current or future, which need to be terminated. In order to adopt, you should contact a social services agency in your area that handles adoptions. They can walk you through all of the steps and answer all of your questions. A custody study is required in every adoption so an agency needs to be involved anyway. Good luck to you.


We welcome your comments or questions. We will do our best to try to respond. However, please be advised that we cannot give legal advice in this forum and all communications are for general informational purposes only. Communication should not be construed as forming an attorney-client relationship. This is an open forum and any information you provide may be posted and will not be held confidentially. By posting a comment or question, you are expressly giving consent for the publication of same. If you have any specific legal issues or concerns, we always recommend that you consult with an attorney in the county and state in which you reside.

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