In Wisconsin, a judge entering orders regarding divorce or other family issues has great discretion. There are statutory guidelines they must follow but there are very few laws that they cannot deviate from for just cause. Family court is a court of equity which means that the judge is required to enter orders that are fair and equitable to both parties. This gives the judge wide latitude when making decisions in family cases in Wisconsin.
You always have the right to appeal a decision, which must be done within a certain time period following the entry of order. The time period varies based on certain factors but, generally, between 45 to 90 days. In Wisconsin, cases first are heard by the Court of Appeals which consists of a panel of 3 judges in different districts around the state. An appeal can take up to a year to complete.
However, due to the discretion granted to family court judges in Wisconsin, it is very difficult to win an family law appeal unless the judge made a mistake or entered an order which was clearly erroneous. The most common mistake that a judge can make is that he or she fails to make sufficient findings which would support his or her decision. Or, that the judge misunderstood or misapplied the law.
This is rare and even if you win your appeal, the court of appeals cannot substitute its own orders for the circuit judges. This means that while the appellate court will provide some guidance or direction based on its interpretation of the law regarding the issues, it will simply remand the case, or send it back, to the circuit court to correct its mistake. Therefore, even if you “win” your appeal, the case is still not over and the results are not guaranteed. For example, after getting the case back, the judge could enter the same order(s) but with more specific findings. If the judge clearly made an error, however, you may end up with a different order or findings.
The time and expense of an appeal is rarely worth it on a family case. Most family law attorneys are unwilling to even appeal a case. You should consult with your attorney or another attorney who is experienced in appellate work to determine whether your case is likely to succeed on appeal and, if so, what the cost would be. Based on that, you could then decide if you wish to pursue an appeal.