Family Law from the Voices of Students

I recently spoke to a group of high school seniors during their Government class. The class was studying a unit on courts, attorneys, judges and other legal proceedings, so a friend of mine thought it would be informative for his class to hear from a practicing attorney.

I remember the attention I paid (or lack thereof) when I was in high school to a guest speaker, so I went in with the expectation that I would do forty-five minutes of speaking and maybe interest one student enough that (s)he would ask a question regarding family law. Well, I was wrong.

The students were between the ages of seventeen and eighteen and were surprisingly intrigued by what I do. So much so, that I was asked many questions that I did not have time to answer. I quickly realized as we began our discussions that it is not just people who come in to our office who deal with family law issues on a day-to-day basis. Even though I was speaking to students, family law is a relatable topic to them as well. I found it very interesting as to which topics interested the students.

The most common questions I answered were related to situations regarding “friends” of the students. Below are two of the examples of the questions I answered:

1. My friend got someone pregnant and even though he has a positive paternity test showing he is the father, his ex-girlfriend won’t let him see his kid. What can he do so he can have some time with his kid?

Depending on if the child or mother are receiving aid from the state (for birthing expenses, food stamps, and otherwise), the State may begin a paternity action on its own motion. However, if Paternity has been established through DNA testing and the State is not involved, then the father may file an action with the court to establish paternity. Either way, the father and mother are required to attend an initial paternity hearing where temporary orders would be made regarding placement, custody, child support, past-due child support, birthing expenses, health insurance coverage, tax exemption, and the child’s last name.

A lot can happen at an initial hearing, so I recommended preparing and progressing through these proceedings with the help of an attorney. Many young parents meet with attorneys after an initial paternity hearing, and often times it is as a reaction to receiving a negative ruling in Court. As you may suspect, it is much harder for an attorney to backtrack and modify “negative orders” then it is for someone to get an attorney at the beginning stages, where the attorney can be proactive and prepare a client correctly for the first and all hearings in these types of matters.

2. My friend’s parents got a divorce because my friend’s Mom cheated on her Dad. Her Dad keeps telling her Mom “I’m going to take you to the cleaners, the Judge is going to give me everything because you were unfaithful to me!”

It is very common, as a child of divorce, to experience and be witness to high emotions when your parents marriage is deteriorating due to one parent, or both, having an affair.

Wisconsin is a no-fault state, and therefore the wife’s affair is not something the Court will prioritize, or sometimes even consider, in making decisions on his divorce. In order to get a divorce in Wisconsin the court only needs to find that the marriage is “irretrievably broken,” and that the wife is not currently pregnant.*

The only possible exception to this is when there are children involved and the parents are arguing about placement and custody (legal decision-making) of them. In this instance, a parent may argue that the children are being harmed by a new relationship. Then, a Guardian Ad Litem–an attorney who advocates for the “best interests of the children”–will likely be appointed by the Court. That attorney may take into consideration the wife’s behavior if, for example, it is not in the best interests of the children.

The lesson I learned from my experience is that teens are very interested in family law and that they are as affected as much, if not more, than adults by a divorce or paternity.


-Madeleine Thompson-Davies

*Please see our blog on marital presumption in Wisconsin (here) to better understand why the wife must not be pregnant at the time of divorce.


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