1. File the Divorce Petition.
In Wisconsin, there two models for filing a divorce. Either both spouses act as “Joint Petitioners” and file a Joint Petition together, or else one spouse (the “Petitioner”) files a Summons & Petition and serves it on the other spouse (the “Respondent”). There is actually very little difference between these two systems. With a Joint Petition, there is no need to formally serve any party with any paperwork. However, when a Summons & Petition is filed, it has to be served upon the Respondent by a sheriffs Deputy or a private process server, or else the Respondent has to sign an Admission of Service.
However, once the service is complete, there are no further differences between these two models. All issues including custody and property division will be handled exactly the same way, and neither spouse gets any kind of advantage by being the Petitioner. If the spouses agree to file a Joint Petition together, this does not mean either spouse is giving up the right to contest any part of the divorce proceedings. Conversely, one spouse can formally serve a Summons & Petition on the other spouse, but the parties can end up quickly agreeing on all issues.
There is a filing fee that has to be paid when beginning a divorce. The exact amount of the fee varies county-by-county. In Milwaukee County, the fee is $198 if one party is requesting either child support or maintenance, and the fee is $188 if there is no such request. In addition, if you have to serve the other party with the Petition, the will be a separate service fee that is often between $50-$75.
2. Receive a “Dismissal Date” in Milwaukee County.
When you file a new divorce in Milwaukee, you will receive a “Dismissal Date.” This date will be approximately five months in the future. Although it often confuses people, this is not an actual court date where the parties have to appear before a judge. Rather, on this date the Family Court Commissioner’s Office will pull the file, and they will dismiss the case if there isn’t an upcoming court date on the calendar by then. This keeps cases from languishing for months without any action. In most counties, you won’t automatically get a court date when you first file a divorce action; you have to specifically request a court date later on in the process.
3. Consider whether to request a Temporary Order Hearing.
When the divorce is first filed, or anytime afterward, either party can file a request for a Temporary Order Hearing. In most counties this hearing will be held in front of a Court Commissioner rather than the Judge assigned to your case. In Milwaukee County, the hearing will be held in Room 707 of the Courthouse.
At the Temporary Order Hearing, the Commissioner will set out an order covering a variety of temporary issues while the divorce is ongoing. There will be decisions about temporary use of particular vehicles and bank accounts, temporary occupancy of the home, and who is temporarily responsible for paying various bills. If there are minor children, there will also be a temporary custody and placement order, and temporary child support ordered. The parties will be strongly encouraged to reach an agreement on all these issues on their own, but the Commissioner will make a final decision if necessary.
Oftentimes, a Temporary Order Hearing is unnecessary because the spouses have already separated many of their assets and have a good understanding about their various responsibilities while the divorce is ongoing. Sometimes, one spouse will request a Hearing, but the spouses will work out a full Stipulation in advance of the actual hearing.
4. Take a Parental Education Class if the divorce involves minor children.
If there are minor children involved, both parents are required by state law to complete an approved parental education class before they can receive a date for a final divorce hearing. Each county maintains its own list of approved classes – make sure the class is on the approved list before attending it. Most courses take about four hours, and many can be done online. For instance, here is the list of approved Milwaukee County parenting classes. Ozaukee County, on the other hand, requires parents to take its own in-person class.
5. Complete your Financial Disclosure Statement.
In every Wisconsin divorce, both spouses are required to each complete a Financial Disclosure Statement. The spouses do have the option of jointly filing a shared Disclosure, but most often each spouse completes their own. This is a comprehensive listing of all assets, income, and debts of the spouse. It is often somewhat time-consuming to complete, but very important that each spouse completely and accurately learns the full financial status of the other spouse. You will have to complete your Financial Disclosure before you can obtain a final hearing date. You may also have to update your Disclosure if too much time has passed since the initial filing and the final date.
6. Negotiate the Marital Settlement Agreement.
The Marital Settlement Agreement is the formal agreement setting out everything from division of property to the amount of child support. A well-written agreement will thoroughly account for all aspects of the divorce, and it will reduce the likelihood of the parties having to file post-judgment motions against each other after the divorce is final. Following are some, but not all, of the provisions commonly found in a Marital Settlement Agreement:
- Custody agreement and Placement Schedule of the minor children, including vacations and holidays
- Child Support amount
- Responsibility for provision of health insurance to minors, and allocation of variable expenses of minors
- Maintenance (alimony) provision
- Division of physical property, including vehicles
- Division of bank accounts, retirement accounts, and other such assets
- Ownership of real estate
- Apportionment of all debts
- Agreement as to how to file income taxes in the year of divorce
- Whether the wife will be resuming use of a previous last name
7. Obtain a Final Hearing Date
The procedure for doing this varies dramatically from county to county. In many counties, the court will automatically set the case for a Scheduling Conference or a Pretrial Conference after the passage of a set amount of time. In Milwaukee County, you have to specifically request a court date, and the procedure varies depending on whether it is a contested case or whether you have reached a full settlement. Under Wisconsin law, the final hearing has to be at least 120 days after the Joint Petition was filed, or after a Petition was served upon the Respondent.
In advance of the final hearing, you should submit the original and multiple copies of the Marital Settlement Agreement, as well as a proposed Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Judgment. You should also prepare a Divorce/Annulment Worksheet, which gets filed with the State Vital Records Office after the divorce is final. Many counties, including Milwaukee, require one party to submit addressed and stamped manila envelopes to mail the parties file-stamped copies of the Judgement after it has been signed. Also, you need to bring a $5.00 check for the fee to record the judgment.
8. Attend the Final Stipulated Divorce Hearing
If all your documents are in order, this final hearing should be quite brief and straight-forward. The purpose of the final hearing is for the judge to determine that both spouses agree with and understand all the provisions of the Marital Settlement Agreement, that they entered into the agreement voluntarily, and that the terms of the agreement are fundamentally fair to both spouses. If there are minor children involved, the judge has to determine that the custody, placement, and support provisions are in the best interests of the children. During the hearing, each spouse will testify one at a time as to these facts. The spouses also have to testify that they believe the marriage is irretrievably broken. If the judge approves the proposed settlement, the divorce will be final as of the date of the hearing, even if the judgment is not signed until a later date. The judge will also warn both spouses that they are not allowed to remarry anywhere in the world for a period of six months following the date of divorce.
9. Complete Any Remaining Paperwork
Oftentimes, your work is not done even after the judge approves the settlement and grants the divorce. If one spouse is giving up interest in a piece of real estate, they may have to complete and record a Quit Claim Deed. A party may have to refinance a loan, or close a bank account, or transfer a lump sum payment to them. If a retirement account such as a 401(k) is being divided as part of the divorce, the parties must have a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) prepared and signed by the judge. It is strongly recommended that, even if you are represented by an attorney, you retain a professional to prepare the QDRO.
Keep in mind, the above list is just a general overview of the process. Also, this guideline assumes the spouses have agreed on all issues, or quickly come to an agreement. If the spouses have disagreements as to any of the issues, such as property division or custody & placement, the case will progress much differently, and may include additional steps such as court-ordered mediation or the appointment of a Guardian ad Litem to represent the minor child’s interests.