8 Steps to Child Custody & Placement in a WI Court
In Wisconsin, the process for cases involving a child's legal custody and physical placement varies.
Your case will likely involve the following steps. Some may be rearranged or others added depending on your case, judge and county.
If you reach an agreement with the other parent, you can settle your case at any point to jump to Step 8 below. Note that if you're divorcing or separating, the court can't approve your agreement until 120 days after one parent officially gives the other the initial case paperwork (in Step 2).
Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.
Step 1: Prepare
Do your research, and consider your options. Check out various placement schedules to see what arrangement you want to propose. Then, get advice on how to proceed from an attorney or legal aid office. If you're representing yourself, get familiar with Wisconsin's child custody and placement laws.
Step 2: File your case
To begin, open a case for divorce, separation, paternity or custody with the circuit court.
Next, service must occur. Service is when a process server (recommended), a sheriff or an adult not involved in the case provides the other parent with copies of the paperwork you filed.
Afterward, you must provide proof of service to the court so the case can officially begin.
Some cases: Get emergency orders
If you need to protect your child from their other parent, you can petition the court for a restraining order on the child's behalf.
Given credible claims of child abuse, the court will temporarily place the child with you and put sanctions in place for the other parent. This happens quickly — within hours or days of the petition's filing.
You will later need to appear in court with the other parent to determine whether the emergency order should continue.
Step 3: Get temporary orders
It's recommended that you request temporary orders when you open your case or soon afterward. These set custody, placement and child support arrangements for the duration of the case.
You'll have a hearing a month or two later. Here, each side states their stance on the temporary orders requested, along with reasons. Then the court makes temporary orders as appropriate.
Some cases: Go to mediation
Custody and placement mediation is usually required, but sometimes can be avoided — like if you've already tried it or if there's been domestic violence.
Go to mediation as soon as you can so you have a better chance of settling your case quickly. You may even go before you set foot in a courtroom, if you file a request and pay the fees soon enough.
During mediation, a neutral third party listens to each parent to help them find areas for compromise. The mediator writes up the terms of any agreements and submits the documents to the court.
If parents resolve all their issues, they jump to Step 8. Parents who can't reach a complete agreement continue through the court process.
Some cases: Take a parenting class
A parenting class is a common requirement for divorce cases. The court may also order unmarried parents to attend if their case is contentious.
The class provides lessons on co-parenting and helping children adjust to life after their parents are no longer together. Approved programs vary by county, and they occur in person or online. Upon completion, parents receive a certificate to turn in to the court as proof of attendance.
Although you don't usually need to complete the class until the end of your case, show initiative and prevent holdups by taking it early on.
Step 4: Attend a status conference
A few months after a case opens, the court holds a status conference (also called a scheduling conference or review hearing).
Depending on your county, you appear before a judge or commissioner. The court official asks you or your attorney about the status of negotiations.
If you have a written agreement, you submit it here and jump to Step 8.
If you don't have an agreement, the court may order you to take part in a custody study. It can also appoint a guardian ad litem to the case and order you to attend mediation (if you haven't already).
Some cases: Take part in a custody study
A custody study (also called a custody evaluation) gathers more information on a family so the court can make an informed decision. This is common in high-conflict cases and those that involve special circumstances like domestic violence.
A representative from the Office of Family Court Services interviews the family and people who know them. They may also visit the parents' homes, and a psychologist may evaluate the parents and child.
Then the Office of Family Court Services sends the court a report that includes recommendations for legal custody and physical placement. The judge or commissioner considers it when making a final determination.
Step 5: Participate in discovery
Discovery is the exchange of information between parties to help them prepare evidence and arguments for trial.
Through formal discovery demands, parties can request and exchange evidence (e.g., text messages, medical records) and pleadings (e.g., accusations, legal defenses).
Additionally, there may be depositions so each side can question the other and their witnesses under oath.
Some cases: Attend additional conferences
You may have multiple status conferences to check on case progress. Parents can request status conferences, or the court may order them.
In addition, your judge or commissioner may hold a pre-trial conference one to two weeks before trial. This conference helps your court official better understand the areas of dispute and gives you another opportunity to settle. If you don't settle, you'll make preparations for trial.
Step 6: Prepare for trial
Before you go to trial, you need to do some paperwork.
The parent who filed the case must fill out the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Judgment as much as possible. (If you have a custody-only or paternity case, get your version from the court.)
For divorce and separation, you may also need to complete the following:
- Proposed Marital Settlement Order: Required from both parents, this proposes resolutions to the matters in the case.
- Financial Disclosure Statement: Both parents need to fill out this form detailing their finances anytime between the start of the case and trial.
- Order to Appear: Some counties — but not most — require the parent who opened the case to fill this out and serve a copy to the other parent as notice of the trial.
Take your completed, original forms to the court clerk for filing.
In some counties, the parent who filed has to call the court's judicial assistant to schedule the trial.
Step 7: Go to trial
If parents don't reach a settlement, there will be a trial (also called a final hearing). A trial for divorce or separation cannot begin until 120 days from the date of service.
During the trial, each parent or their attorney presents evidence and arguments in favor of the orders they're seeking, and witnesses testify under oath to support a parent's case. The judge or commissioner evaluates all of this and makes decisions based on what's best for the child.
Step 8: Receive final orders
After making decisions at trial or approving a settlement, the court official signs the final orders. The specifics go into a document called the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Judgment, and any agreements between the parents (such as a parenting plan) are attached.
If a parent disagrees with a ruling made by a commissioner, they can request a review by a judge.
Custody and physical placement orders stay in effect until the child turns 18 or the court grants a request to change the order. Two years must pass before there can be a modification unless there's proof emotional or physical harm has been done to the child.
Throughout your case
During the court process, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft placement schedules, keep a log of interactions with the other parent, and more.
The Custody X Change online app enables you to do all of this in one place.
Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.