Wisconsin Family Law: An Overview

Some of the most common cases brought to Wisconsin courts involve divorce, child custody and visitation, alimony or marital property distribution negotiations. Wisconsin's family laws extend beyond these issues to other family-related legal issues including marriage rights and requirements, adoption and many others. Family laws protect the rights of every family member and aim to resolve some of the most emotional family disputes in a fair manner.

If you have a family law case in Milwaukee, Wausau, Green Bay or elsewhere in Wisconsin, LawInfo is your source for information and legal help. LawInfo's Wisconsin Family Law section includes legal overviews, summaries of state laws and other resources to help you make the right decisions for you and your family.

If you need help navigating the complex laws governing your case, a Wisconsin family law attorney can help and treat your case with the sensitivity it deserves.

Wisconsin Prohibited Marriages

Wisconsin's family laws prohibit certain people from marrying for health, ethical and legal reasons. Most of Wisconsin's marriage laws are concerned with a person's capacity to consent to marriage which can be affected by age, health or other personal circumstances. The following types of marriage are prohibited in Wisconsin:

  • Marriage to a minor under 16 years of age. Minors age 16 or 17 years old may marry after attaining written consent from their custodial parent or guardian.
  • Marriage to family members closer than second cousins.
  • Bigamous marriages (i.e. one partner seeking a new marriage when a former marriage is not yet void).

Wisconsin Marriage License

As you're planning your wedding day, you're probably concerned with things like venues, seating arrangements and catering. One of the most important parts you should plan for is applying for a Wisconsin marriage license.

A marriage license legalizes your marriage and confirms your marital status when applying for family benefits like insurance or tax breaks. It's important to strategically plan the time when you'll apply for a license because it carries waiting and validity periods. Once you receive your marriage license, you'll have to wait five days before getting married. After the waiting period, you'll have 30 days to perform your ceremony before the license expires.

Wisconsin residents must have been living in a Wisconsin county for 30 days before applying for a marriage license at their local County Clerk office. Once a resident has received his/her license, he/she may use it in any Wisconsin county. Non-residents must apply for a marriage license in the county where they will be married.

Wisconsin "No-Fault" Divorces

While many states require one spouse to allege the marital misconduct of the other spouse as a fault ground for divorce, Wisconsin is a purely "no-fault" divorce state. This means that a divorce may be granted if there was simply an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. This divorce ground assigns no particular blame to any spouse.

If a couple has lived separately and apart for 12 months or longer, a no-fault divorce may be granted by the court. However, a no-fault divorce may still be granted without the 12-month separation requirement if the court has concluded that there was an irretrievable breakdown. The court may order divorce counseling if there's a reasonable chance that a marriage may be saved.

Distribution of Community Property in Wisconsin

Couples tend to believe that they'll each retain half of everything they jointly owned in marriage if they divorced. This is true for the most part in Wisconsin, which is considered a "community property" state.

Wisconsin law assumes that all community (marital) propertyóanything the couple acquired during the marriage except for personal gifts, inheritances and payments from life insurance or employee benefitsóis equally shared and owned by each spouse. Hence, a court will typically divide and distribute community property equally between divorcees.

However, the court may also alter the distribution of property to include certain separate property (i.e. property attained prior to the marriage and gifted, inherited or paid by insurance or benefits during the marriage) or an unequal division of community property. The court may make this decision of a fair and equitable division after considering several factors, including:

  • The needs of a divorcee with primary custody of the children.
  • The value of separate property owned by each divorcee that isn't qualified for distribution.
  • Each divorcee's monetary and non-monetary contributions to the marriage, homemaking and child care.
  • Each divorcee's earning capacity and the various factors influencing that capacity.
  • Each divorcee's health and economic circumstances.

When Do I Need a Wisconsin Family Law Attorney?

Whether you need a family law attorney depends on a number of factors specific to your case. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Few couples need a lawyer to get married but attorneys may be required if there's a prenuptial agreement involved.

Individuals often benefit from hiring an attorney when dealing with divorce, child support, and especially child custody matters. Because emotions can run high during some divorces, hiring an attorney to negotiate and resolve difficult issues can be invaluable.

Many lawyers offer free initial consultations, so it may be worth your time to speak with an experienced Wisconsin family law attorney if you have additional questions.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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