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.

Therapy and Counseling For Children In a Divorce

Concept for consultation with psychologistIt is very common during, or even after, a divorce that parents and children alike need someone to talk to about their feelings and emotions. As family law attorneys, we understand that a portion of our job will deal with helping clients manage their emotions, however, we are not trained as therapists or counselors. Therefore, we often suggest that families seek outside counseling to handle the emotions of a divorce. Specifically, if children are involved, we urge clients to tend to their children’s emotional needs during the divorce. If meeting the children’s emotional needs in a divorce includes involving them in therapy or counseling (whether by the wishes of one or both parents, by recommendation of the Guardian ad Litem or by order of the court), we offer the following tips:

  1. Present a united front for the children regarding therapy. Often times children are resistant to therapy and see it as a form of “discipline” or that they are being sent because something is “wrong” with them. Therefore, it is important to explain to your children that therapy is not a choice; therapy is a requirement. Like any ailment that requires medical attention or treatment, depression, sadness and anger require the same attention. So, therapy is being required for the children’s health and happiness. Your words as the parents and adults, not the children’s, are the final say on this issue.
  1. That is not to say that you, as parents, should not be compassionate if your children are resistant to therapy. It is important to be understanding, yet consistent with the expectation of attending therapy. One way to do so is to present to the children the positives about therapy (i.e. it is a safe place to discuss feelings) and talk through the negative feelings they have towards therapy.
  1. Do not “grill” the children on what is discussed in therapy. Therapy is intended to be a “safe” forum for children to discuss and work through their feelings about the divorce. They need this therapy to be a safe place and know that what they tell the therapist is confidential.
  1. Do not threaten to “tell” the therapist on the children if they are misbehaving or acting inappropriately. Rather, talk to the children about their behaviors and indicate that it may be helpful to involve the therapist in a productive way to help both the parents and the children look at ways to cohabit better.
  1. Do not blame one parent or the other for the reason the child is in therapy. The children are in therapy to help cope with the emotions that they feel as they go through the divorce process. Remember, this was not their choice to have their parents divorce. So, it is important that the children feel supported by both parents in their therapy.

If one parent objects to the children attending therapy and the court needs to decide this issue, it is almost certain that the court will order the therapy.  Children going through a divorce or contested family law situation can almost always benefit from counseling.  The courts typically err on the side of caution and allow an expert to become involved.  Counselors are generally very honest and will tell the parents when and if counseling is appropriate.  Therefore, objections are generally futile and only portray the objecting parent in a bad light – as someone who does not care about the welfare and well-being of their child.

Just as a therapist is there to help manage counseling needs, an attorney is there to guide you through the legal process. It’s important to direct the right question to the appropriate expert.  When you do have family law-related legal needs, please do not hesitate to call our office at 414-258-1644 to meet with one of our attorneys for a free half-hour consultation.

The Importance of an Appropriate E-mail Address in Family Law Cases

Envelope and pink email symbol. 3D renderIt has been said that an email is like a “virtual handshake” between two people. It is a way to introduce yourself to someone and it speaks to your professionalism. Therefore, it is important to create an appropriate e-mail address when you begin any legal process if you do not already have one.

In family law cases, your e-mail address is important because it can be used more than just to communicate confidentially to your counsel. You may be ordered to communicate by e-mail to the other party on your case and the e-mails may ultimately be presented in court. This means that the court would have a chance to review the e-mails and your e-mail address.

Below are a few “do not” and “do” tips in regard to e-mail addresses:

DO NOT: set up an e-mail address that insults, incites or patronizes the other party. Creating an e-mail address that does any of the above makes you look foolish, immature and could negatively impact your case. For example, if custody is an issue in your case and your e-mail address insults your ex (the other parent of your child) a Guardian ad Litem or Judge may construe this as the insulting party’s inability to have productive co-parent communication with his/her ex. Also, do not set up an email that negatively reflects upon you such as referring to inappropriate activities.

Examples of inappropriate emails: ihatemyex@emailserver.com
ilovedrinkingandpartying@emailserver.com

DO: set up a personal e-mail address that is your own (i.e. not shared with a new spouse or partner and not your work e-mail address). The easiest way to accomplish this is to make your e-mail address your name, in some form, and to be the only person who uses that account.

If you already have an appropriate email, make sure you change the password at the start of the divorce and there is no way to for your spouse to access same. Email has become the primary form of communication with all parties, including your attorney, in family law cases. It is important to make sure that this form of communication is protected and private.

The takeaway point of this blog is that you understand that your e-mail is likely to be shared and made public during your family law matter. Therefore, it is important to make sure that it is professional and noninflammatory. If you wish to have an attorney help guide you through your family law matter and help you conduct yourself in an appropriate manner throughout your proceedings, please call our office to schedule a free 30 minute initial office consultation to discuss your matter with one of our attorneys.

Divorce from the Child’s Perspective

Please stop fighting!I recently read an article that discussed divorce from a child’s perspective. Since a significant portion of my caseload is Guardian ad Litem appointments (where I am appointed by the court as the attorney for the child’s best interests), I am frequently tasked with speaking with children whose parents are in the process of divorce or other custody and/or placement disputes. In my work as Guardian ad Litem, I see first-hand what divorce is like from the child’s perspective. As such, it is important as parents going through a divorce, to be mindful of the below requests and thoughts that children wish their parents knew during a divorce:

1. We can love both of you 100%. Just because we love being at dad’s house and love our dad, does not mean that we don’t love you and being at your house mom. This also means that when we miss dad when we are with you, it’s not because we love you any less. Please do not make us feel like we have to choose who we like more or less. Also, please do not make us feel that we cannot share with you that we are enjoying our time with both parents. This is a tough time for us, so please allow us to be happy.

2. We notice when you are civil with one another and appreciate it. We know that you are not getting along well. Otherwise, you would still be together and not going through a divorce. However, the fact that you can still both attend our sporting events and school concerts and be nice to one another for our sakes means a lot to us.

3. We are not informants. Period. When you ask us questions about what happens at mom’s house or about mom’s new boyfriend, we know it is because you want “dirt” on mom. When you put us in a position to be an informant, it will go one of two ways: 1) we will tell you what you want to hear at the expense of being truthful. We are so scared to hurt you that we will say anything to make you feel better about yourself, or 2) we will shut down and not tell you anything because we feel betrayed that you have asked us to be the conduit of information for what happens at mom’s house. Can’t you just respect that it is difficult enough for us to go back-and-forth between two different homes, with two different styles of parenting, much less have to worry that we will be interrogated about the other parent’s house? Either way that we react, our relationship with you becomes less pure when you put us in this investigative position.

4. Do not use us as pawns. We are not chess pieces. Do you really want your children to grow up feeling used, manipulated and duped? This is how we feel when you use us as leverage against the other parent. And if you think we do not know that you do it, you are wrong.

5. Do not overshare. No matter our age, we do not need to know every dirty detail. We may ask you to tell us. In fact, we may beg you to tell us everything and say we want to know why you hate dad and why you filed for divorce. The reality is, however, no matter how awful or hurtful dad’s behavior was to you, you still chose him to be our other parent. So, be careful how much you share with us. If you need to talk to someone, please see a therapist or confide in a close friend. We are children; we are not therapists.

If you are going through a divorce and you have children, it is important that you have an attorney who is sensitive to the needs of your children and encourages you to continually put your children first. If you wish to speak with an attorney at our office, please call us at (414) 258-1644 to schedule a free thirty (30) minute office consultation..

-Attorney Madeleine Olmstead

 

The Domestic Abuse Presumption in Custody Cases

Drawing shows young girls inner feelings about being abusedUnder Wisconsin law there is a presumption that joint custody is in the best interest of the child. A presumption under the law means that the court will enter that order unless someone shows grounds as to why it should not be ordered. There are typically statutory factors which the court must consider when making that determination. However, the presumption for joint custody does not apply in cases where a court finds the required amount of evidence that a parent has engaged battery or abuse to the other parent.

When a case has a “domestic abuse component,” the law says the court should not award an abusive party joint or sole custody. This presumption may be overcome only if the person found to be the abuser provides evidence of all of the following: 1) evidence of completion of a batterers treatment program, and evidence that he/she is not abusing alcohol or any other drug, and 2) that it is in the best interest of the child for the offending parent to be awarded joint or sole custody taking into account all of the factors that are considered when determining the appropriate custody and physical placement for the child.

In cases where there is evidence that both parties have engaged in domestic abuse, the court will determine who was the “primary physical aggressor.” Whomever is the primary physical aggressor is the parent who will not be awarded joint custody. If the court finds that neither party was the primary physical aggressor, then the domestic abuse presumption does not apply to either parent, and the presumption of joint custody applies again.

If you are the victim of domestic abuse and you are in the middle of family law related legal proceedings, it is imperative that you bring these issues to the court’s attention at your first opportunity. This is particularly important in pre-judgment divorce and pre-judgment paternity proceedings. If you raise the concern at a later date in a post-judgment divorce or post-judgment paternity matter, when an order for joint custody is already in place, and the concern is based on facts that were available to you at the time of the divorce or initial paternity matter, the court may conclude that you have already waived your right to challenge the presumption of joint custody.

To be clear, you may not seek application of the domestic abuse presumption in post-judgment matters based on facts that were available and known to you prior to entering into a joint custody arrangement. However, if new instances of abuse happen after the entry of an order, you may request that the domestic abuse be applied in a future proceeding if the new facts and instances support an application of the domestic abuse presumption and apply the presumption is in the best interest of the children.

If you are accused of domestic abuse or there is a domestic violence injunction has been granted against you, it is important that you immediately take the necessary steps to show the court you are suitable to have joint custody and make parenting decisions for your child. These steps include, but are not limited to, completing a batterers treatment program, refraining from abusing drugs and/or alcohol, and being an appropriate parent in all other aspects.

Complicated as this may seem, the message is clear: make sure that your attorney and the court are aware of any issues of domestic abuse and interspousal battery present in your matter prior to a final order. That way, if you are the victim of the abuse, you may seek timely application of the presumption in your matter and allow the court to make a custodial decision that is in the best interest of your child. Similarly, if you are found to have engaged in acts of domestic violence, it is important that you find an experienced family law attorney who will work with you to best protect your interests.

If you have issues of domestic abuse in your case, it is important that you have an attorney help guide you through your divorce or paternity and help you seek application of the appropriate laws and presumptions. If you wish to discuss your matter with one of our attorneys, please call our office to schedule a free initial office consultation.

Grandparent Rights in Wisconsin: Can I File an Action?

Sad senior couple in  parkIn Wisconsin, grandparents may be afforded the legal right to have visitation with their grandchildren. The process to obtain these rights may be difficult, therefore it is helpful to have an attorney navigate you through this process.

When the parents have been married, and have subsequently divorced, grandparents may request “reasonable visitation rights” in the existing family law action. In order to be successful in this type of action, the grandparent must successfully demonstrate three factors: (1) he/she has maintained a parent-child relationship with a child, (2) the child’s wishes to have a relationship with the grandparent, and (3) the visitation with the grandparent is found to be in the child’s best interest.

When the parents are unmarried, the grandparent may file an independent suit or petition if they have maintained a relationship with the child or have attempted to do so, but were prevented from having a relationship with the child by the child’s custodial parent. In these cases, there must be a determination of who is the father of the child (a paternity determination). If the requirements are met, then the court will consider other factors, such as the best interest of the child, the wishes of the child, and whether the grandparent will abide by decisions made by the child’s parents concerning the child’s “physical, emotional, educational or spiritual welfare,” if that grandparent is afforded visitation rights.

There are also other actions available to grandparents seeking visitation when one or both parents are deceased or when the biological grandchild has been adopted. Nelson, Krueger and Millenbach, LLC does not handle guardianship cases or adoption cases, so if this is your situation, you should seek advice from an attorney experienced in these areas of the law.

If you wish to speak with an attorney regarding grandparents rights in a divorce action or in a paternity matter, please contact Nelson, Krueger and Millenbach, LLC, at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free half-hour consultation.

How to Speak with Children About Divorce

When you are going through a divorce, it is easy to become distracted by your own emotions and forget that your children are being effected as well.

Linda Hassan Anderson, Vice President of KinderCare, wrote a blog which highlights what parents should do when talking with children about divorce.  Among her suggestions were the following tips:

  1. Talk to your children together. Approaching your children about your divorce through a united front will show the children that even if you are not able to continue the marriage, you are able to continue co-parenting your children.
  2. Consider the timing and place you tell your children about the divorce.  They will remember the conversation and how they were told, so a private and familiar location is best.
  3. Answer the questions that you can.  You may not have an answer for everything the children are concerned or confused about, but be on the same page with how you will answer questions.  Less is more when it comes to the details of your divorce, however honest simple answers can help the children process what is going on.
  4. Give your children space and time to process, while still checking with them.  The children will also experience many different emotions throughout the divorce process and after, so it is important to acknowledge and assure the children that it is okay for them to have the feelings that they are experiencing.  If your children experience depression or just need someone outside of the family to speak with, counseling or therapy may be a helpful outlet for them.

Following the above tips and assuring your children that you love them, may help ease the pain of the divorce the process and help the children adjust.  For assistance on how, when and what to tell your children regarding your divorce, it is worth considering meeting with a child specialist or co-parent counselor.

Additionally, if you wish to speak with an attorney to help you navigate your divorce, please contact our office at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free initial office consultation or visit our website for more information.

 

Custodial Issues Regarding School in Wisconsin

Legal custody can be granted to one parent or both parents.  The court may award joint legal custody to both parents or sole custody to one parent.

The presumption in Wisconsin is that joint legal custody is in the best interests of the child.  Joint legal custody provides both parents an equal opportunity and responsibility to make decisions for the child.  For parents who have joint legal custody, no one parent’s decision is superior to the other parent.  In cases where there is domestic abuse, severe drug or alcohol abuse, mental health issues, or other serious situations where the parties cannot communicate, one parent may be awarded sole legal custody.  The court is very hesitant to grant sole custody unless there is compelling evidence presented that shows eliminating decision-making rights for one parent is in the best interest for the child.

In some cases, the court may award joint legal custody with one parent having final decision making for all or some of the custodial decisions. This is sometimes referred to as “veiled sole custody,” and therefore is not popular with the court unless good reason is given for the request.

Major decisions include, but are not limited to, consent to marry, consent to enter military service, consent to obtain a driver’s licenses, authorization for non-emergency health care, and choice of school or religion.

One of the most controversial custodial decisions is school choice.  When parents no longer reside together, or never did reside together, there are often geographical issues that naturally arise that affect school choice.  For example, one parent may reside in the marital home and in the district where the children have been going to school for a number of years, while the other parent has moved to another county where they believe the children would receive a better education or be afforded better opportunities.  When the parents cannot agree on where the child should go to school, it is likely the court will appoint a Guardian ad Litem to address this issue.  The Guardian ad Litem’s job is to make a recommendation to the court of what he/she believes is in the best interest of the child.

Taking one example, if one parent is exercising primary placement of the child and has been the school placement parent since the parents split up, the court is likely to find it is in the best interest of the child to continue the current placement schedule.  However, if the school placement parent’s work hours change and that parent can no longer take the children to and from school and be there for the children after school, there may be reason for the court to find that a school change would be appropriate and in the best interests of the child.

The court is required to consider a number of factors when deciding the appropriate custodial arrangement for a family.  The extensive list of the required factors is the following:  the wishes of the child’s parents, the wishes of the child, the interaction and relationship with all members of the child’s family, the amount and quality of time that each parent has spent with the child in the past, any necessary changes to the parents’ custodial roles and any reasonable life-style changes that a parent proposes to make to be able to spend time with the child in the future, the child’s adjustment to the 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 custodial household negatively affects the child’s intellectual, physical, or emotional well-being, the need for regularly occurring and meaningful periods of physical placement to provide predictability and stability for the child, the availability of public or private child care services, the cooperation and communication between the parties and whether either party unreasonably refuses to cooperate or communicate with the other party, Whether each party can support the other party’s relationship with the child, including encouraging and facilitating frequent and continuing contact with the child, or whether one party is likely to unreasonably interfere with the child’s continuing relationship with the other party, whether there is evidence that a party engaged in abuse, whether a parent’s significant other, or person residing with them has a criminal record, has engaged in abuse of the child or any other child or neglected the child or any other child, has engaged in interspousal battery, has a significant problem with alcohol or drug abuse, the reports of appropriate professionals if admitted into evidence and such other factors as the court may in each individual case determine to be relevant.

When the court is consider making a school choice decision, there are usually a number of other considerations included in a court’s ultimate determination.  For example, 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 aforementioned is not an exhaustive list of what the court can and will consider, but includes some common considerations.

Please note, while many parties focus on school ratings, the court does not typically focus on same.  The reason being, the evidence brought forward regarding school ratings (unless very drastic) is often being used by the parents to further a different underlying motivation for the school change.

Please be advised, if the school you wish to have your child attend would require you to move more than 150 miles for more than 90 days, then you have to notify the other party and wait to see if the other party objects to same.  For more information on this specific topic, please see our blog about  moving with a child at https://wisconsinfamilylaw.info/category/custody-and-placement/.

Can I Move Out of State With My Child in Wisconsin?

***NOTE:  THE LAW IN WISCONSIN HAS CHANGED. PLEASE SEE OUR UPDATED BLOG POST ON THIS TOPIC:  New Wisconsin Statute Changes Procedure s to Move a Child’s Residence

The law in Wisconsin is that you cannot move with your child(ren) more than 150 miles from your residence or out of state without providing notice to the other parent, with a divorce or paternity case pending.  The exception to this is if the other parent does NOT have visitation or placement rights which, of course, is rare.

You must provide sixty (60) days advance written notice to the other parent explaining when and where you intend to move and the reasons for said move.  Make sure you have some proof of notice such as a certified mail receipt.  If the other parent objects, he or she can file an objection with the court but must do so within fifteen (15) days of receiving your notice. It is wise to make no definite plans to move until you learn whether or not the other parent will object.

If there is an objection, the court can prevent the child(ren) from moving. The law in Wisconsin is somewhat complicated but states that the court can either prevent the move or modify the custody and placement provisions if the court finds all of the following:

∙ The modification is in the best interest of the child.
∙ The move or removal will result in a substantial change of circumstances since the entry of the last order affecting legal custody or the last order substantially affecting physical placement.

This means that the court could award placement/custody to the other party if you move. It would depend on what type of relationship the other parent has with your children and how much he/she sees the children but the court could transfer custody and/or placement to him or her if the court believes it would be in the best interests of the children.

The court arrives at this decision by considering the following factors:
∙ Whether the purpose of the proposed action is reasonable.
∙ The nature and extent of the child’s relationship with the other parent and the disruption to that relationship which the proposed action may cause.
∙ The availability of alternative arrangements to foster and continue the child’s relationship with and access to the other parent.

If you wish to move less than 150 miles away, your current placement schedule may still be affected. For example, the current placement schedule may not be workable due to the distance and either party may ask the court to modify the placement schedule based on a substantial change in circumstances. However, the court could still determine that it is not in the best interests of the children to move and/or change schools. Therefore, if the other parent’s residency permits, the court could still award placement to the other parent so that the children could remain in their current school district. Again, it is best to wait to make definite plans until you can be sure the other parent agrees or the court will agree that the children may move and change schools.

To be clear, YOU can always move. The question of whether you can move with your child, however, is one that must be decided by the court after following the steps described above.

If there is no divorce or paternity case pending or a judgment previously entered, there are no restrictions on a move.  However, you should note that (a) you cannot conceal the whereabouts of a child from the other parent and (b) the other parent could always file an action and then request that the child be returned to the State of Wisconsin.  If you are concerned about this type of situation, it would best to speak to an experienced family law attorney about the facts of your case.

If you have any questions regarding moving with your child(ren), please contact our office at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free initial office consultation or visit our website for more information.

Holiday Placement with Children

With the holiday season upon us, we often see placement disputes.  It is important to follow your judgment of divorce or paternity when it comes to holiday placement.  The holiday schedule set forth in the court order takes precedence over regularly scheduled placement and should be followed except upon mutual agreement.

If you do not have a specific holiday schedule, the courts typically find that holidays should alternate which means whoever had the last holiday has the next upcoming holiday.  Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are separate holidays and each parent should see the children on one of those days.  The same is true with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.  However, if the family of one parent has a typical tradition (i.e. always Christmas Eve), then that parent should receive that holiday assuming the other parent also doesn’t have family traditions on that day.

Please keep in mind that in disputes, the children are the ones who suffer.  They have the right to spend holidays with both parents and to see and spend time with both sides of their families.

Happy holidays to you.

How Do You Modify Custody or Placement in Your Divorce or Paternity Judgment?

Often times the circumstances surrounding the agreements made at the time of your divorce do not remain the same indefinitely. This is especially the case when children are involved.

There are specific time limits that must be followed in order to modify your Divorce or Paternity Judgment accurately. A final judgment may be modified for different reasons at different times. A “final judgment,” for the purposes of requesting a modification, in a divorce proceeding includes the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Judgment of Divorce and a Marital Settlement Agreement. For a paternity case, it includes the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Judgment of Paternity.

If you want to modify custody (decision-making rights) and physical placement for your child and it is within two years of the final judgment on your paternity or divorce case, you will need to file a Motion to Modify with the court, and it is your burden to show by substantial evidence that the current custody and physical placement is harmful to the physically or emotionally harmful to the best interest of the child.

After two years has passed from the final judgment, you can file a Motion to Modify with the court if there has been a substantial change of circumstances since the entry of the last order affecting legal custody or the last order substantially affecting physical placement , and modifying the current order is in the best interest of the child.

A “substantial change of circumstance” can include, but is not limited to: a considerable change in either spouse’s income or employment status, a new health problem which impacts the ability to work, moving to a new location, and substance abuse problems or criminal activity.

If your final judgment is no longer current and new circumstances warrant a modification, please contact Nelson, Krueger and Millenbach, LLC, to discuss your case with an experienced family law attorney.

Contempt of Court in Wisconsin

If a party intentionally and without legal justification disobeys a court order, this is called being in contempt of court and the law provides a remedy through a finding of contempt.

In family or divorce actions, the most common examples of contempt are when one party fails to pay child or spousal support or if one party refuses to honor the custody and placement (visitation).

In Wisconsin, to address or obtain relief from the court for the contempt, the party who is harmed by the violation of the court order must file a Motion with the court describing the contempt in order to have the matter heard. This Motion must be personally served on the violator at least five (5) business days before the date of the hearing.

If the violator is found in contempt, the court has the authority to order the violator to correct the contempt and also to order sanctions or penalties as a result of failing to comply with the court order. This may involve more than one hearing because the court must allow the offender an opportunity to obtain counsel. The court must also set “purge conditions” which is an opportunity to purge or correct his or her contempt by setting tasks to be completed or payments to be made in order for the violator to avoid further punishment. Some of the sanctions available to the judge are payments, wage garnishment, attaching or seizing assets or even jail time.

The court also has broad discretion to come up with other, more creative solutions to force the violator to comply with the terms of the decree. For example, if a party was court ordered to sell the marital residence by a certain date but did not do so, the court may give the violator a certain period of time to sell the home in order to avoid a finding of contempt. If the violator is successful in selling the home in the time ordered by the court, the violator completed the appropriate purge condition and would not be found in contempt.

The harmed party may also ask the court to order that the violator be responsible for paying the harmed party’s attorneys fees and other expenses associated with the Motion. The court will often do so as a way to punish the offender.

It is important to note that if a violator is found not to have an ability to pay or comply with the court order, for whatever reason, then he or she cannot be found in contempt. For example, if someone becomes ill and cannot work, then they are not in contempt for failing to pay support because they do not have the ability to pay. Or, if someone tries to sell a home pursuant to court order but cannot do so, they are not in contempt because they did try to comply with the order.

If you are in a contempt situation, whether you are the party seeking relief or the party who is out of compliance with the court order, it is best to consult with an experienced family law attorney to assist you for the best possible results. For more information or a free initial consultation if you are in our practice area, visit our website at www.nkmfamilylaw.com or contact us at 414-258-1644.

Can my Child Decide Who to Live With in Wisconsin?

Many parents want to know if their child can decide who they want to live with in a divorce or in a placement dispute.  Or, they ask at what age a child can decide who they want to live with.  In Wisconsin, the answer to that question is that children can never make the decision as to who they want to live with, at any age.

There are many reasons for this.  Primarily, however, the courts have determined that children are not emotionally mature enough to make such a momentous decision.  Further, parents should not be placing their children in the middle and forcing them to choose between two parents who they love.

Wisconsin statutes do provide that the judge must consider the wishes of the child when making a determination on placement.  However, that does not mean that children get to decide or make that decision.  Ultimately, it is up to the parents or the courts to make a placement decision.

The older the child gets, the more weight their wishes are given.  This is especially true for a child who is mature and/or has valid or legitimate reasons for feeling the way that they do.  However, parents often mistake strong feelings for maturity.  This is not the case.  I have had cases where the court does not listen to very immature teenagers (age 17) who want to live with one parent or the other for invalid reasons (a parent is too strict or a parent is trying to influence them).  I have also had cases where the court does listen to a mature younger child (age 12) who has very valid reasons for wanting to live with one parent over the other (abuse, alcohol, neglect, etc).

More importantly, if a parent is trying to influence their child too much or drag their child into a divorce or placement dispute, this will be construed negatively against them.  Parents want to be very careful about this or it could be used against them in a placement dispute.  Children, especially teens, often have strong feelings about a lot of things but that changes frequently.  Despite what they may say, however, they do not want to be placed in a position of having to choose between their parents.  If there are legitimate concerns about the other parent, such as neglect or abuse, then this should be pursued.  However, if the sole reason to change placement is simply because that is what the child allegedly wants, this is most likely not going to succeed in Wisconsin.

Sometimes, there is a situation where a child simply will not go with the other parent for placement.  The courts usually feel strongly that you are the parent and your children must listen to you and follow a court order.  After all, children do not get to decide whether to go to school, do their homework or a myriad of other tasks that they must do.  Parents must be able to control their children.  If the relationship between the child and the other parent has broken down to the point that the child will not go for placement, then counseling is in order to repair that relationship.  The reasons for this breakdown are important, of course, and the court will take those reasons into consideration.  Ultimately, however, the child does not get to decide whether to follow a court order or not.  Understandably, this often puts the placement parent in a difficult position.

If you have questions or concerns about a placement dispute, please feel free to contact us at 414-258-1644 to schedule an appointment.  We offer free initial consultations and can review the facts of your case to evaluate your placement dispute.

The Marital Presumption of Paternity in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, there is a presumption of paternity based on the fact that the parties are married. Even if the parties have been separated for months, or even years, Wisconsin law presumes that any child “of the marriage” is the child of both parties.

The marital presumption can be overcome by results of genetic testing that show that a man, other than the husband, has a 99% probability of being the father.

In marriages where there is a dispute of this nature, the court will almost always appoint a Guardian ad Litem to investigate the matter. Guardian ad Litem’s are appointed on cases where there is a placement or custody dispute, and their job on the case is to represent the best interests of the child.

The Guardian ad Litem will typically recommend that the court order genetic testing at the first appearance for the mother, the child, and the husband to find out if the child is related to the husband. This is ordered immediately, because the parties must present an Order for Genetic Testing to the Child Services Agency to do genetic testing through the court.

If the genetic testing proves that the child is not the husband’s, the Guardian ad Litem typically advises the mother begin a paternity action against the biological father, so that the child has a legal father in his or her life. A court will not typically overcome the marital presumption unless there is an adjudication of a legal father.

Please note, if the couple is LEGALLY separated (meaning the couple has been granted a legal separation by the court), then there is no presumption that the husband is the father.

If you are concerned about the paternity of your child and are subject to the marital presumption in Wisconsin, it is in your best interest to seek legal counsel to resolve this issue as soon as possible.

Non-Marital Children: Overcoming the Marital Presumption in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, if a child is born during a marriage, the husband is presumed to be the father. But what happens in situations where, for example, the parties have been separated for several months while your divorce is pending, and the wife becomes pregnant with someone else’s child. Can the presumption be overcome?

The answer is: not automatically. If your divorce has not been finalized, the child is considered “born to the marriage,” and is presumed to be the husband’s.

This is why the wife is asked during divorce proceedings, “are you currently pregnant?” If she is, the court will usually not grant the divorce. The idea behind this is that the child is entitled to a legal father who shall be responsible (financially, if not otherwise) for the child. Therefore, the court is highly reluctant to make a ruling that would leave the child without a legal father.

Husbands who are the legal fathers have notoriously found this presumption to be unfair, with the argument being that the presumption takes away the father’s due process rights. The Supreme Court of the United States addressed this argument over 20 years ago and found that the presumption that the mother’s husband is the child’s father does not, in fact, violate a father’s due process rights.

The presumption may be overcome, however, if another man who is biological father, even though not yet the legal father takes a genetic test, and the results show a statistical probability of that man’s parentage as 99.0% or higher. If this turns out to be the case, the court will likely order the wife to commence a paternity action against the biological father. Once paternity is established, the presumption against the husband can be overcome and the divorce can be granted.

Therefore, in situations where a child is born of the marriage but is not the husband’s biological child, it is wise for the wife, or her attorney, to commence a paternity action against the biological father immediately. In the alternative, if the wife is arguing that the child is, in fact, the husband’s child biologically, the husband or his attorney can ask the court to order genetic testing, if the husband has a doubt.

Please note, in most cases where paternity of the child is at issue in a marriage, the court appoints a Guardian ad Litem for the best interests of the minor child. The Guardian ad Litem will make recommendations for the best interests of the child, such as requiring the husband and alleged biological father to undergo genetic testing that will work towards figuring out who the biological father of the child is, and who will be found to be the legal father of the child.

5 Useful Holiday Tips for Divorced Parents

    1. If you have a disagreement about placement, look at your divorce decree/marital settlement agreement, and follow it TO THE LETTER.  Do not put yourself at risk of being found in contempt over the holidays. Follow your court ordered agreement and address with your attorney any concerns or violations that happened AFTER the holidays.
    2. Do not speak ill of your ex in front of your children.  Even if your ex dropped off the children 15 minutes late, do not speak negatively of him or her in front of your children. It is not productive for your co-parenting relationship and it has a negative effect on your children
    3. Do not get into a texting/phone war.  If you have issues with your ex regarding placement, send a well thought out e-mail or get on your Our Family Wizard account. Nothing will be resolved through misinterpreted texts, or nasty telephone conversations.
    4. DO allow your children to talk about your ex with you, and speak positively (or at least neutrally) about him or her with the children.  Children can sense when parents are not getting along. For example, if they ask if Santa is coming to Mommy’s house, do not respond by saying “Not a chance. He’s flying over and dropping coal as he goes.” Again, this is NOT productive.
    5. Above all, remember the holidays are about your kids.  Ensure to the best of your ability that you make the holidays positive for your children. Do not dwell on the fact that you were not awarded the overnight you wanted. Instead, maximize your placement by spending quality time, when you do have time with your children.
    6.  

Mediation and Domestic Abuse

In Wisconsin, mediation is required in all family law cases where there is a dispute regarding placement and/or custody of minor children. The definition of mediation is when the two parties meet outside of the courtroom, with a neutral third party, to work out the contested issues in their case rather than litigate them.

The problem with mediation for a couple where domestic violence is present is that mediation implies that the parties are on a level playing field. When there has been domestic violence in a relationship, the abuser and the victim are not equal, and mediation can be more harmful than helpful. Victim advocates have weighed in on this issue and do not recommend mediation in cases when there has been domestic violence present, because there is a power relationship between the parties which may go unnoticed by the mediator.

Take, for example, a wife (victim) who goes to mediation with her husband (abuser). The husband speaks to the wife calmly and cooperatively in front of the mediator. He asks the wife to please be reasonable and to work with him. In fact, he suggests that they stop using court avenues altogether and meet once a week around the kitchen table to discuss the children’s placement schedule. To the mediator, the husband seems agreeable and reasonable. However, to the wife, the kitchen table brings up the memory of the last time she was at the kitchen table with her husband, when he threw her on top of it and abused her. Silenced by fear, the wife simply sits there or, out of fear, gets up and leaves the mediation. In this example, it is likely that the mediator’s notes would categorize the wife as disagreeable or unable to work on the issues reasonably while the husband is found to be agreeable and cooperative. Knowing the domestic violence present in this example, we know that the mediator’s notes are incorrect but there is nothing to do after the mediation is concluded to change the mediator’s conclusion.

The court is allowed to make an exception for mediation if it would endanger the health or safety of one of the parties. Therefore, it is important for an abuse victim to raise this issue before the court. The court may, either with or without a hearing, agree to then waive mediation.

Definitive evidence of potential harm is the existence of a domestic abuse injunction. If a victim files an injunction against the abuser, this is compelling evidence upon which the court can waive mediation. The reality, though, is that many victims do not file injunctions for a number of reasons. An injunction is not required to waive mediation, however. If you do not have an injunction but still are fearful for your safety, you should inform the court so as to avoid this situation entirely.

Therefore, if you are a victim of domestic violence, either with or without an injunction legally protecting you, we recommend that you inform the people who can best help you going forward in your court case. This includes, but is not limited to: your attorney, the Guardian ad Litem, the mediator and the social worker.

-Madeleine Thompson-Davies

Tips for a Better Co-parenting Relationship After Divorce

For couples with children, divorce does not end a relationship but instead changes its focus. Although they no longer relate to one another in the context of marriage, in order to provide the best possible care for their children, divorced parents must learn to forge a new relationship as co-parents. The following tips may help smooth the transition for divorcing parents and help them provide a stable, healthy environment for their children.

 

Foster mutual respect

 

Particularly in the immediate aftermath of a painful breakup, when divorced spouses may still be dealing with strong and difficult feelings toward one another, co-parenting can seem like a daunting task. However, regardless of what your feelings may be toward your ex, kids need a strong and loving relationship with both parents. Therefore, it is important to promote and encourage a strong relationship between your children and the other parent. Resist the urge to be competitive, and take care not to vent your frustrations or speak disparagingly of your ex in front of your children.

 

Communicate

 

Another important part of a successful co-parenting relationship after djivorce  is keeping the lines of communication open between yourself and the other parent. Communicating frequently and openly will help both parents stay in the loop about the children and help create continuity between households. In addition, regular communication between co-parents helps nip misunderstandings and miscommunications in the bud, preventing them from growing into larger conflicts that may be disruptive to parents and children alike.

 

It can be helpful to set regular times to touch base with a co-parent about things like school, homework, scheduling, holiday plans and health issues. If speaking face to face is too difficult, particularly at first, try touching base by phone, email or instant messaging. With time and patience, collaborating with your ex on parenting issues will most likely become easier.  See our blog on using Our Family Wizard as an effective tool.

 

Establish boundaries

 

As important as communication is for successful co-parenting, it is just as important for you and your ex to establish reasonable boundaries and show respect for one another’s privacy. Tempting as it may be, avoid grilling your kids for details about your ex’s personal life after divorce.  Also resist the urge to micromanage or criticize your ex’s parenting skills — even when he or she does things in a way that you would not choose. If you make an effort to choose your battles and keep things in perspective, your ex-spouse will be more willing to extend you the same courtesy.

 

Minimize conflict during the divorce process

 

Couples with children and others who wish to minimize the negative impact of divorce often benefit from a process known as collaborative divorce . Unlike traditional divorce litigation, which is fundamentally adversarial, collaborative divorce is based on cooperation and communication between the spouses, with a shared goal of reaching a mutually agreeable outcome. At the beginning of the collaborative divorce process, both spouses sign a contract that states they agree to resolve the divorce without resorting to litigation.

 

For couples who are interested in collaborative divorce but are not necessarily ready to sign a contract, cooperative divorce offers a similar solution. The process of cooperative divorce is essentially the same as collaborative divorce, except that the spouses retain the option of going to court as a last resort.

 

If you have any questions regarding divorce, please contact our office at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free initial office consultation or visit our website for more information.

Our Family Wizard: A Tool for Productive Communication Between Parents

While it is certainly the goal for parents to communicate amicably during or following a divorce, that is often not the case. Tools like Our Family Wizard (“OFW”) help accomplish productive communication, even when parties are unable to have effective communication directly. OFW is a user friendly program, available through a website (listed below), where parents pay $99.00 for a year subscription to the program, and then are able to set up their private communication webspace.

OFW has an “information bank” where parents can keep current on their child’s medical records and school records. The “message board” is a place where parents can type messages directly to each other to inform the other parent about activities the children may have, or placement schedules. Reminders may also be set on this program so that parents are notified of important events that are scheduled through OFW. Parents may also create an expense log on OFW, which can be used for example, to avoid the hassle of calling the other parent every time a bill is incurred that is court ordered to be split.

If you have an attorney, or there is a Guardian ad Litem appointed to your case, either of them may also view this communication. This is great for attorneys and Guardian ad Litem’s because it eliminates the “he said/she said” battle that often occurs in divorce cases, and holds each parent responsible for what they enter into the program. Further, the court has access to this information, so both parents are likely to keep all communication appropriate and productive.

More and more, courts are ordering parents to activate OFW accounts in an effort to avoid conflict and enforce healthy communication between parties. Courts typically use OFW as a “third party mediator” for parents who have trouble communicating with one another directly. However, even in less contentious cases, this program is an effective tool in keeping the parents organized and allows parents to resolve their issues on their own. It helps expose to the court parents who are not communicating well, and it highlights parents who are communicating effectively.

Although there are several other ways in which OFW is helpful, the most important, as a family attorney and Guardian ad Litem, is that OFW helps shield children from the divorce. The children have less exposure to argumentative telephone communications and seeing mean e-mails from one parent to another when all communication is done in one place that is password protected and for the parents, attorneys and courts eyes only.

Please check out http://www.ourfamilywizard.com/ofw to get more information about OFW and to find out what the program can do for you and your family as you go through your divorce.