The Role of Guardians ad Litem in Family Court Matters

In family court matters, a Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”) is an attorney who is appointed by the Judge to represent the concept of the “Best Interest of the Child.” This is different and easily confused with “representing the child.” It is important that the GAL provides the child the opportunity to have a voice and make that child’s voice known. However, it is equally as important that the GAL make it clear to the parties and the child that the child does not have the benefit or the burden of making the choice in these matters.

Further (and unlike a mediator), the GAL does not have to remain neutral in a matter. This means that the GAL’s recommendation may align with one parent’s position and not the other parent’s if the independent evaluation and investigation that was conducted by the GAL leads him/her to that position.

The appointed GAL has a duty to be a part of and approve all decisions that impact custody, placement, paternity, support, sharing of variable expenses, tax exemptions, school attendance, therapy, daycare, health care, transportation, extracurricular activities, insurance, uninsured expenses, child support or any other issue which affects the best interests of the child.

While the GAL is expected to advocate for the best interests of the child, the GAL is not expected to be a private investigator, social worker, therapist, etc. As a legal advocate, the GAL may file motions on behalf of the best interest of the child, referring the child or other members of the family to therapy or counseling, or requesting psychological evaluations of the parties and/or the child.

The GAL should convey recommendations to the parties and/or their counsel before court (if possible) and should provide a brief status of the work that is being done on the case at each court appearance.

The GAL should work with the parties to attempt to resolve the issues related to the children outside of court, as there are almost no circumstances where a trial on these issues is in the best interests of the child.

Since Guardians ad Litem are appointed by the Judge on your matter, you often do not have a say as to which GAL is assigned to your case. However, with any GAL it is important to cooperate with his/her investigation, and to present all information and evidence that you believe the GAL must know in order to make a sound recommendation for the best interests of the child.

If you are considering a court action that will eventually involve a Guardian ad Litem or you are in the middle of a court action involving a Guardian ad Litem, please feel free to contact our office at (414) 258-1644 for a free consultation to discuss how to best prepare for and navigate a GAL investigation.

 

Post Judgment Modifications and Enforcement of Court Orders in Wisconsin

 

Change ahead warning sign over blue sky

In Wisconsin, spousal support (maintenance/alimony), child support, custody and placement (visitation) arrangements may be modified at any time under certain circumstances.  Situations can change which may require the court to modify your order. A change in financial circumstances may warrant a modification of child support or maintenance; whereas a physical or emotional change in your children, a change in schedule or a move may warrant a modification of placement.   There may also be times where you need the court’s assistance in enforcing orders.  If you have concerns regarding a modification or enforcement of a court order, the experienced lawyers at Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC can assist you in evaluating your case and navigate you through the process. Give the a call for your free office consultation.

What changes can warrant a modification?

 There are many situations which may warrant a modification.  The court will look at requests to modify placement and custody differently depending on how long it has been since the original order was made.   When considering a request to modify or change placement the court will look at;

  • Physical or emotional harm to the child
  • Changes in the child(ren)’s behavior and or grades
  • A substance or physical abuse problem
  • Move to a new city or state

When looking at financial modifications (i.e. child support, maintenance or family support), changes in income, job status, graduation of child or placement change may all be reasons to modify an existing order.

What can I do if the other party is not following court orders?

If your ex-spouse is not following the court order, you have options available to you.  Our attorneys are experienced in litigating contempt issues in Milwaukee, Waukesha and the surrounding areas.  There are remedies available to you.  If you are due child support or a medical bill payment, the court can garnish wages or even order jail time for non-compliance.  If placement is being withheld, the law allows for you to be awarded your attorney fees as well as make up time with your child(ren).  Give the attorneys at Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC a call at 414-258-1644 to set up a free office consultation to see how we can help you in your post-judgment divorce or family law issue.

Post Judgment Considerations for Child Custody, Physical Placement, and Child Support in Wisconsin

          Multi Ethnic People Holding The Word Change

Given the nature of custody, placement, and child support issues, parents can often find themselves going back to Court to request changes, or modifications, to an initial or previous order in their divorce or paternity matter. These matters are often referenced as “post judgment” matters. In Wisconsin, there are specific rules that apply to post judgment matters that are different than what parties may have encountered previously when they originally addressed these issues. The list below outlines some important rules and considerations for parents who may wish to initiate, or are involved in, a post judgment matter for child custody, placement or child support:

  1. When was your initial order entered by the Court?
    1. If a party is requesting a change to custody and placement within 2 years from the date of the original judgment, that party must provide substantial evidence that the change is necessary because the current conditions are physically or emotionally harmful to the best interest of the child. This rule makes a change to custody or placement much more difficult before the first two (2) years after the court’s initial order. The intended goal is to provide a cooling off period to help encourage parties to work together and avoid over using the Court system to settle their parenting disputes as well as provide stability for the children.
    2. If the initial order was entered over two (2) years ago, the Court can modify the current order if it finds that the request is in the child’s best interest, and that there has been a substantial change of circumstances since the last order.

 

  1. What is a “substantial change in circumstances” to change custody or physical placement?
    1. The term, “substantial change in circumstances” is very broad. It could mean a variety of things, such as, the parties’ inability to communicate, a change in work hours that effects a parents availability, a move, a change in a child’s medical or developmental needs, or a combination of several factors that makes the current custodial, or physical placement order unworkable. However, merely the passage of time or the aging of the children is generally not considered to be a substantial change in circumstances.

 

  1. What is the point of court ordered mediation?
    1. The Court requires parties attempt mediation in an effort to facilitate an agreement between the parties to avoid further litigation. Many parties are able to come to an agreement on some, if not all, issues in mediation. This benefits everyone involved because both the parties, and the Court, will save the time and the money necessary to proceed through the Court system. The only exceptions to mediation are if there have been domestic violence between the parties, child abuse allegations or one of the parties is impaired due to drugs, alcohol or mental illness.

 

  1. Why was a Guardian ad Litem appointed?
    1. If the parties cannot reach an agreement in mediation, the statutes require that the Court appoint a Guardian ad Litem (an attorney) in order to help determine what is in the best interest of the child or children. The Court relies on the Guardian ad Litem to conduct an investigation in order to provide a recommendation as to what solution to the parties’ issues is in the best interest of the children.
    2. In certain circumstances, such as in cases of domestic violence, the Court may decide to bypass mediation, and immediately appoint a Guardian ad Litem.
    3. There is usually a fee associated with the appointment of a Guardian ad Litem that both parties must pay. The Court will also set an hourly pay rate for the Guardian ad Litem as well. The county pay rate varies by county.

 

  1. What if I simply want to change the child support amount?
    1. If there has been a substantial change in circumstances, then a party may file a motion with the court to change child support. Child support will not automatically change simply because one parties’ income has changed. If you want child support to be changed, you must file a motion with the court. It is important to determine first whether there has been a substantial change in circumstances and what any new child support amount should be before you file a motion.
    2. A substantial change of circumstances to change child support is a very broad standard. It can mean that a party may have received a raise, changed jobs, lost their job, etc. It could also mean that the placement arrangement with the child or children has changed, which would also alter the support amount. Or, if one of your children has reached the age of majority and/or graduated from high school.
    3. If you believe that the other party has had an increase in income, you should request that they provide to you paystubs or some form of income documentation so that you can determine if you should ask the court for a change in child support.

Common School Related Issues in Divorce and Paternity Cases

Multiethnic Group of Children with Back to School ConceptCustody related school issues: When one parent has sole custody of a child, they do not need the other parent’s permission when making major legal decisions for that child, including school related decisions. However, when parents have joint custody of a child and do not agree on, for example, where a child will go to school, there is now a “school issue” in the case.

The court considers a number of factors when making a decision regarding where a child will go to school if the parents cannot agree on a school, such as: where the child primarily resides, how old the child is, how “rooted” the child is in the current school district, what grade the child is in (will there be a natural break in the child’s schooling anyways that would require a change? i.e. Middle school to high school), the child’s involvement in the school, the child’s social life and how it would be affected, the proposed school placement parent’s ability to care for the child before and after school, and the reason the parent is requesting the school choice change (personal or for the child’s benefit).  The court can also consider the proposed school districts and schools themselves as to how they compare to one another.  While the above is not an exhaustive list of what the court can and will consider, this list includes some of the common considerations. Further, this decision is almost always made with the help of a Guardian ad Litem’s recommendation.

To read more on the factors Guardian ad Litem’s and the court considers when making custodial decisions, such as school choice, please see our blog titled “Custodial Issues Regarding School in Wisconsin” at  https://wisconsinfamilylaw.info/2014/07/24/custodial-issues-regarding-school-in-wisconsin/ .

Money related school issues: Another common set of school issues arise when parents are confused or disagree on how much each parent must contribute to school related costs and fees and what exactly qualifies as a “school related cost and fee.”

School related costs and fees are typically considered “variable expenses,” which are expenses that are above and beyond daily expenses and are, therefore, not covered by guideline child support amounts. Determining the percentage of variable expenses that each parent pays is typically determined by the amount of placement that each parent has.  For example, if you have 50% of the placement of your child each year, you likely will pay 50% of the variable expenses for your child; if you have 35% placement of your child, you will likely pay 35% of the variable expenses for your child, and so on. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but this is the general relationship that variable expenses have with placement.

Tuition, registration fees, graduation fees and school supply costs are some examples of what typically qualifies as a “school related cost and fee.” However, when parties do not define exactly what does and does not qualify, parties may disagree about what specific fees and costs require contribution from the other parent.

Often times, an issue comes up where the parties had previously agreed to send their children to private school during the marriage, but one parent no longer agree to same.  If one parent objects to private school on the basis that he or she cannot afford the tuition costs, the court will usually find in that parent’s favor and not force them to pay expensive tuition that they can no longer afford after a divorce.

It is important to include in your divorce agreement detailed language on what percentage of variable expenses, including school fees and costs, that each parent will pay, and what exactly qualifies as a “school fee and cost” to avoid disagreements related to these school issues in the future.

If you have a school issue in your pre- or post-judgment divorce or paternity matter, it is important that you have an attorney help navigate you through these issues. If you wish to meet with one of the attorneys at our office, please call 414-258-1644 to schedule a free half-hour consultation.

 

Termination of Parental Rights- Frequently Asked Questions

alcoholismWhile our firm does not specifically handle termination of parental rights cases, we frequently are asked questions about this area of law. Therefore, this blog is intended to provide general responses to frequently asked questions regarding what does and does not trigger this type of action in Wisconsin.

It is important to know that in nearly all cases of termination of parental rights in Wisconsin, except in very limited circumstances as discussed below, there must be an accompanying step-parent adoption.  The court does not want to leave a child without two legal parents.  The general philosophy is an indifferent or even bad parent is better than no parent. Your child has inheritance rights and rights to see extended family, even if they seemingly receive no current benefit from their parental relationship.

Here are the answers to some of the specific questions we often receive:

Refusal or failure to pay child support: Frustrated parents who are not receiving child support from the other parent for the benefit of their children will sometimes ask if they can terminate the other parent’s rights to the child. Likewise, parents who are court ordered to pay child support and wish to stop that obligation will ask if they can terminate his/her parental rights to avoid a child support obligation. The answer is no to both of these questions. Refusal or failure to pay child support is not a trigger to this type of action.  The obligation to support your children remains no matter what kind of parent is on the other side.  The court will not allow your child to go without support just because the parent is a bad parent.

Failing to see the child(ren): If one parent is not seeing the child(ren) consistently it may prompt the parent who cares full-time for the child to seek a termination of the other parent’s rights. Generally speaking, however, this cannot happen unless abandonment is proven (failure to see or communicate with the child for longer than six (6) months without good cause) AND there is an accompanying step-parent adoption.  So, the simple fact that a parent is not seeing their child may not be a trigger to this type of action.

“Bad parenting”: The same idea applies here as it does for failing to see the children. Unless there is another parent willing to step in to the child’s life so the child has two legal parents, the court is unwilling to terminate rights due to someone being a “bad parent.” Further, the court does not entertain the idea of terminating a parent’s rights simply because one parent thinks the other parent is not a good parent. If, however, the issue of “bad parenting” is a serious issue (such as the parent committed child abuse) this could be a trigger to a termination of parental rights action.

Some of the grounds that do trigger a termination of parental rights action are mentioned above (i.e. abandonment and abuse). Some other grounds are: failure to assume parental responsibility, incest, sexual assault, homicide or attempted homicide of the other parent and a parent who has a continuing disability.

Like all areas of law, each case has specific and unique facts that may not fall squarely in these general overviews. As such, we suggest that you retain an attorney to help you navigate this most serious of actions.

For additional information about this type of matter, please see our previous blog related to this topic. https://wisconsinfamilylaw.info/2012/10/02/terminating-parental-rights-in-wisconsin/

Wisconsin Supreme Court Resolves Issues Regarding Grandparents and Stepparents Rights

Grandparents And Granddaughter Walking On Winter BeachUntil recently, Wisconsin case law supported an interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 767.43(1) that required a grandparent, great-grandparent, or stepparent to prove “a parent-like relationship” with the child in order to secure visitation rights. However, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin’s ruling in the recently decided Meister* case made it clear that only a person other than a grandparent, or stepparent filing a motion for visitation must prove “a parent-like relationship.”

The Court, through this decision, eliminated an additional and unintended barrier for grandparents and stepparents who are seeking visitation rights. This change in the interpretation of the law will open the door to more grandparents, great-grandparents and stepparents who wish to seek visitation rights. Regardless of this barrier being eliminated, it does not guarantee that the grandparents or stepparents will prevail. The Court must “consider the constitutional rights of the parents” and “decide, in its sound discretion, whether the facts and circumstances of the case warrant granting, modifying, or denying a visitation petition in the best interest of the child.”

It is important to note that the above applies to children born to married parents. For children of unmarried (and subsequently never married) parents, the visitation statute still requires that a grandparent or stepparent show they have “maintained a relationship with the child or have attempted to maintain a relationship with the child but have been prevented from doing so by a parent who has legal custody of the child.” Again, however, this type of relationship does not have to be “parent-like” in nature.

If you are a grandparent, great-grandparent or stepparent seeking visitation rights of a child, it is important that you have an attorney navigate you through this evolving area of the law. If you wish to speak with an attorney at our office, please call 414-258-1644 for a free ½ hour office consultation.
* In re the Marriage of Meister, Nancy and Jay. 2016 WI 22.

Children Testifying in Custody and Placement Proceedings

Child Custody BattleIn the family court setting, parents often find themselves disagreeing as to their children’s physical placement going forward. In Wisconsin, the court is required to consider a variety of factors, outlined in the statutes, in order to determine what is in the best interest of the child as part of a custody and placement determination.  One of these factors includes the requirement that the court must consider the wishes of the parties’ children. Most often, those wishes are incorporated in the Guardian ad Litem’s recommendation to the Court. As a result, this often leads to the question of whether the children have a voice, or a choice, in the proceedings, and whether they can meet with the Judge.

There are many concerns with revealing a child’s wishes for placement. It is important to remember that children are not small adults, or always able to know what is in their best interests, regardless of their level of maturity. This is why the Court will appoint a Guardian ad Litem: to determine what is in the best interest of the child. It can be very harmful to children to pressure them into making such a decision, and forcing them to choose between their parents. This also leaves the child vulnerable to retribution or pressure from an unhappy parent. For these reasons, it is extremely unlikely that the Judge will meet with the child, let alone have a child testify in court as to their wishes in a custody and placement proceeding.  In fact, in the combined experience of our firm, we cannot recall the last time this was done in any of our cases, if ever.

Further, it is important to note that children do NOT get to decide where they are going to live or how much time they spend with each parent in Wisconsin.  The court is required to at least hear what their wishes are but there are numerous other statutory factors that the court must consider as well.  Therefore, as a whole, the wishes of a child usually play a minor role, if any, in the decision of the court.   As a result, except in unusual situations, any testimony by a child in a custody or placement proceeding would likely have limited value.  This is why it is almost unheard of to have a child testify in court in these matters.

In Wisconsin, the Court appoints the Guardian ad Litem to conduct an investigation as to what is in the child’s best interest because the Judge does not have the resources to conduct that investigation. The Court also trusts that the Guardian ad Litem will protect the child from being placed in the middle of the parent’s placement and custody dispute. If you find yourself in a contentious custody and placement dispute that you fear your child may be placed in the middle of or if you feel your child’s best interest will not be sufficiently represented in court, call us at (414) 258-1644 to schedule a free initial consultation to discuss your case.