In Wisconsin, 2021 Wisconsin Act 204 has been signed into law which changes how the courts may enter initial orders regarding custody, placement, and child support for minor children, maintenance, property division, or other related matters. This new law is now incorporated into the Wisconsin Statutes as §767.333. Starting March 20, 2022, a Court may approve as a final order (referred to as an “initial” order in the statute) a stipulation, or partial agreement, regarding custody, placement, child support, maintenance, property division or other related agreements before the judgment of divorce, legal separation, or annulment.
This is important because these agreements will be considered final even if there has not been a judgment of divorce, legal separation, or annulment yet granted. This means that the court would then apply post-judgment statutory standards regarding modification of final orders if a party is requesting a change in the order, even though the underlying divorce, legal separation, or annulment may not be final. Depending on the issues that are agreed upon in the stipulation, this statute notes the specific legal requirements to address post-judgment motions to modify these final orders.
Because of the finality associated with these types of stipulations, the statute requires that before the court enters the stipulation as a final order of the court, there must be a hearing before the court, on the record, where the court confirms that the parties understand the terms of the stipulation, and the Court also ensures that the parties intend for the stipulation to be considered final. It is helpful to note that this hearing must be held with both parties present, either physically present, or attending by phone, video, or electronic means, to enter these stipulations as final orders.
This change in the statute is very important in cases involving custody and placement issues for minor children. Often, parties are unaware that their initial agreements, incorporated into the Judgment of Divorce, Legal Separation, or Annulment, cannot be modified within two years of that judgment unless that party requesting the modification can prove, with substantial evidence, that not making that change to custody or placement would be physically or emotionally harmful to the best interest of the child or children. After two years from that initial judgment, a party requesting a modification must show a substantial change of circumstances since the last order affecting placement or custody. Given these requirements, it is much more difficult to change custody and placement within that two-year timeframe.
For example, if it takes an additional six months for the Court to issue a final judgment of divorce because there were issues that had to be determined in a trial, but the Court entered a stipulation regarding custody and placement as final orders in the middle of the case under the new statute, then as of the date of divorce, the parties would already be six months into that two-year timeframe.
This can also mean that Partial Agreements regarding property division or other financial matters become final and cannot be changed after the court approves that Agreement. This is sometimes disadvantageous if a divorce is not yet finalized because circumstances can change. You may or may not want to lock in a financial agreement prior to the final divorce judgment. In either case, it important to be aware of what the consequences of entering into that Partial Agreement.
Given the change in the law, it is important to understand what you are agreeing to before entering a stipulation, or a Partial Marital Settlement Agreement, in your divorce, legal separation, or annulment matter. It is important to know what such stipulations may mean, if they are final, and what finality means if something changes after entering these stipulations. If you have questions, or concerns, regarding how this new law may affect you in your family law matter, please call Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC at (414) 258-1644 to schedule a free initial consultation to discuss your case.