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.

 

What is a De Novo Review in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, many people may find that their family law matters, or restraining orders, will be heard in front of a court commissioner. This is because the courts are able to delegate this authority in order to more efficiently use the judge’s court calendar. However, if a party believes that a court commissioner gets the decision on their issue or issues incorrect, that party has recourse.

Pursuant to Wisconsin State statutes, any decision of a court commissioner shall be reviewed by the assigned judge, upon a motion of any party.  Essentially this is an appeal of that decision and it is called a “de novo review”, which means the judge will review the issues in a new hearing as though there was never a hearing and ruling by the court commissioner. This motion for a hearing de novo must be made in writing. The judge are supposed to allow both parties to testify again, review all of the evidence, hear witnesses, and then the judge will make a determination on the issues pertaining to the original filing that brought the parties in to court the first time.  However, it is important to note that many judges handle these types of motions much more informally and try to avoid a full second hearing, except for restraining orders, although they are required to do so by law.

There are certain time limits for filing a motion requesting a de novo review, and these limits are set by each county in their local court rules. In general, if your issues are a part of a family court matter (regarding custody, placement, child support, maintenance, contempt, or post judgment issues), the party seeking a de novo review shall usually have about 10 -15 business days, depending on the county in which your case is being heard, from the date the court commissioner signs the order and gives it to the parties at the hearing. If the court commissioner does not give each party and attorney present a written copy of that order, then the party seeking a de novo review may have a different time period from the date of mailing the order.  If you believe that the court commissioner’s order is unfair, it is extremely important to ask at the time of the hearing what the time period for a request for a de novo review is in that county and to file that request as soon as possible following the hearing.

If a party is seeking a de novo review of an order involving the granting or dismissal of an injunction (restraining order), there may be a different deadline.  For example, in Milwaukee County, the party seeking the de novo review from a family court commissioner case in a divorce or paternity shall have fifteen (15) days from the date of a hearing, providing they receive a copy of the order immediately, but shall have thirty (30) days after the court commissioner issued the order or ruling in a restraining order. It should be noted that the thirty day deadline includes weekends and holidays but a deadline less than thirty (30) days does not. These slight variations in deadlines make it important to check with your county’s local court rules to ensure that you do not lose your right to request a de novo review.

It may be the most practical to file for a de novo review hearing immediately after your hearing if you believe that the court commissioner made the wrong decision in your matter. If you believe that you need a de novo hearing, or that a party has filed for a de novo hearing in your matter, call us at (414) 258-1644 to schedule a free initial consultation to discuss your case.

 

Can My Spouse and I Use a Mediator Instead of Lawyers In Our Divorce?

Mediation - dispute resolution process.

Many people ask if they can use a mediator instead of lawyers in a divorce.  Recent changes by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, redefining the role of a mediator in a divorce action, have caused many people to ask this very question.  In order to determine what is right for you, an understanding of the difference between Lawyer-Mediator and Advocate Attorney is needed.

Typically, a mediator’s role has been to help parties find solutions to disputes from a neutral, third party perspective. Mediation is confidential and scheduled outside of court, so it aims to promote open, honest and unreserved discussion between the parties. Mediators can benefit parties in a divorce by helping suggest constructive alternatives to the positions of each of the parties and to help to find a reasonable solution based on the presentation by both parties. Mediators will sometimes prepare a short and neutral-toned memorandum of the agreement between the parties if agreements are reached. Then, the parties are responsible for ensuring that an agreement is drafted and submitted to the court so that it becomes an order of the court.

Recently, however, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has approved the expansion of the role of a lawyer serving as a mediator.  Specifically, “lawyer-mediators”, are now permitted to draft, modify or file documents confirming, memorializing, and/or implementing the parties’ mediated agreement.  In order to do so, the law requires that the lawyer-mediator maintain neutrality throughout the process and also have the written informed consent of the parties.

As this new rule is rolled out (effective date of July 1, 2017), it is important to understand that lawyer-mediators are not interchangeable with advocate counsel.

In fact, as part of the written “informed consent” that the lawyer-mediator must obtain the lawyer-mediator must inform the parties that it is important to seek independent legal advice before executing any documents prepared by the lawyer-mediator. This is done because the lawyer-mediator cannot assume an advocate role. Therefore, a mediator does not necessarily replace the need for an attorney to advocate for your interests.

By nature, mediators must be neutral.   Mediators are hired to help the parties reach an agreement and not advocate a certain theory or provide advice to the parties.  Therefore,  lawyer mediators may only perform these additional duties allowed under the new rule if it can be done without compromising his or her neutrality and so long as they do not assume an attorney-client relationship with either party.  This means that any document drafted by the lawyer-mediator would need to be a “neutral” document; that the lawyer-mediator shall not attempt to advance the interest of one party at the expense of the other party; and that the lawyer-mediator may not give legal advice to either or both parties while acting in that neutral capacity.

This can lead to issues however, because often times one or both parties do not understand all of the consequences of their decisions. An attorney acting as neutral mediator may attempt to explain these consequences to the parties in mediation but only if they can do so without giving legal advice, without acting as counsel for either party and without compromising his/her neutrality. Practically speaking, this is a very difficult task when many issues impact the parties differently in a family law matter. As is often the case in family law matters a question from one party may have an adverse effect on the other party.  How does a lawyer mediator answer questions without giving legal advice or advocating (albeit innocently) for one party or the other? At Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC, we believe mediation is a valuable tool and resource in many family law matters. As such, we often use the assistance of lawyer-mediators in cases where we need a neutral opinion on unresolved disputes.  However, at all points during the case, and during the mediation, our clients have an advocate who is consistently working to advance your interests and explain the consequences of your decisions.  This is not a benefit afforded to litigants who move forward with mediation without the benefit of advocate counsel.

Lawyer-mediators also cannot act on the behalf of a party in court, cannot assist the parties in court matters such as scheduling or procedure and cannot appear in court with the parties.  Many people are confused and intimidated by the court system.  Advocate counsel can assist you in all aspects related to the court system itself.

So, while lawyer-mediators may assist advocate attorneys greatly in family law matters, they have different roles than advocate attorneys and that should be well understood before the decision is made to use only one or the other.

If you have a family law matter that you wish to discuss with an advocate attorney at our firm, please do not hesitate to call our office at 414-258-1644 to set up a free consultation with one of the attorneys.

What Is the Most Popular Time of Year To File a Divorce?

Divorce concept with gavel and wedding rings

When do people most commonly file for divorce? While there can be many reasons why individuals may consider filing for divorce, there are certain times of the year that courts see an increased number of divorce filings. In a recent article published by CNN, with an analysis by FindLaw.com, states that American divorce filings between 2008 and 2011 revealed a surge in divorces in the month of January, with divorce filings increasing and peaking in late March. The article suggests many reasons for this trend, and can be found here:

http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/09/health/january-divorce-month-matrimony/?iid=ob_homepage_deskrecommended_pool

In summary, this article suggests that many people make up their minds about a divorce before the holidays, but hold off until January to avoid appearing heartless to family and friends by ending a marriage during the holidays. Many people may also be motivated by budget issues to wait until after the New Year. The end of the year is generally when many people receive bonuses, which can be helpful when approaching the expense of a divorce. Plus, waiting until the New Year can allow couples to file their taxes jointly for the previous year, which can be beneficial for the parties facing a divorce.

It is suggested by psychiatrist and author of “The Intelligent Divorce” book series, Mark Banschick, that the start of the year, for many people, is an “existential moment,” where people self-assess their lives and determine that life is too short, and that the current version of who they are is unhappy. He notes that the best time for a divorce is when an individual feels centered about who they are and what it is that they need in life.

Surprisingly, another time of year that people commonly file for divorce is in September. Traditionally, summer is the time for family vacations because the children are home from school, and many people do not want to start trouble at this time. Summer is also wedding season, and many people do not wish to attend weddings in the middle of a divorce. So, similarly to the end of a busy holiday season, people tend to feel like the time for togetherness is over, and it is time to get back to real life.

To those of us involved in the area of family law, it is clear that a divorce is a difficult decision for anyone to make at any time. The decision to proceed with a divorce can have a profound effect on the individual’s family, financial well-being, and daily life. If you are facing this difficult decision, call us at (414) 258-1644 to schedule a free initial consultation to discuss your case.

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.

Prenuptial Agreements in a Divorce in Wisconsin

Ein Ehevertrag mit zwei goldenen Eheringen

Prenuptial, or Premarital, Agreements are legally binding contracts entered into by couples before they get married to each other. They are also called Marital Reclassification Agreements. The purpose of a Prenuptial Agreement is to opt out of marital property laws in whole or in part. Most prenuptial agreements establish the financial rights of each spouse in the event of a death or divorce. It is important to note, however, that unless a Prenuptial Agreement specifically discusses what happens in the event of a divorce, it does not necessary apply in a divorce.  If all requirements are met, however, prenuptial agreements are generally found to be valid in Wisconsin.

Some common circumstances where prenuptial agreements are entered into are when one spouse is significantly wealthier than the other spouse, when a spouse has children from a different marriage or relationship, when one spouse has a family business he/she wishes to protect from the other spouse in the event of divorce, or when one spouse has significant debt that the other spouse does not want to be responsible for in the event of divorce.

Pursuant to statute, Wisconsin law presumes that all assets shall be divided equally in the event of a divorce. However, a Prenuptial Agreement could overcome that presumption if it specifically addresses what happens in the event of a divorce and if the court determines that it is a valid Prenuptial Agreement that will be upheld in a divorce. Additionally, it is important to know that parts of a Prenuptial Agreement may be upheld by the court, while other parts may not be. The court has the discretion to uphold all, none or only parts of the Prenuptial Agreement.

When deciding whether to uphold a Prenuptial Agreement, the court must insure that certain requirements and standards are met in order for all or part of a Prenuptial Agreement to be enforced and upheld at the time of the divorce. Some of the factors that the court looks at to determine whether a Prenuptial Agreement should apply in a divorce are whether or not the agreements were fair at the time of the signing of the Agreement (i.e. did the parties knowingly and voluntarily enter into the agreement?), whether there was a complete financial disclosure by both parties, whether both parties had adequate legal representation and whether or not a Prenuptial Agreement is fair at the time of the divorce (i.e. has their been a substantial and unforeseeable change in circumstances?).

An example of a situation that may be scrutinized for lack of fairness at the time of entering the agreement is the following: When the husband-to-be is insisting on a Prenuptial Agreement and only presents it to the bride-to-be on the eve of the wedding day (guests have already come to town, non-refundable deposits have been paid). In that circumstance, the bride-to-be may sign the Agreement without sufficiently reviewing the Agreement, without fully understanding the Agreement and her rights under the Agreement and without fully grasping what she is giving up in the future. In the case, the court may decide not to apply a Prenuptial Agreement in a divorce.

If you have questions about a Prenuptial Agreement in a divorce, please call our office at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free half-hour consultation with an attorney.

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.