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How are child custody matters decided in a Wisconsin divorce?

Here at the law firm of Hannula Halom & Scherz Attorneys in Superior, Wisconsin, we often represent and advise parents facing divorce across Northwest Wisconsin in divorce and child custody. We understand the stress of not knowing what the future will bring when it concerns the most important thing in your life: your children. 

We make it our priority to explain in detail to each client what Wisconsin child custody law says about where kids will live, how often they will see each parent and which parent will have the legal power to make important decisions for their children. Once we thoroughly consider the law in light of your family circumstances, your goals and what is in your children’s best interests, we can make a plan to go forward.


Under Wisconsin law, “legal custody” means parental authority and responsibility to make major life decisions for a child such as those related to religion, school and health care. Legal custody may be joint or solely given to one parent. If joint, the parents may decide all matters together or certain issues may be assigned to just one parent to decide.

“Physical placement” is like the traditional concepts of physical custody and visitation. “Periods of physical placement” under the law are simply scheduled times during which a child will live or be with a particular parent under that parent’s control, according to a preset parenting plan.

Negotiation first 

Usually, the spouses try to negotiate a settlement agreement through their attorneys to govern the terms of their divorce, submitted to the court for approval. For child custody, the couple can create through negotiation a suitable living arrangement for their children that works for everyone. 

Custody determined by court 

If they cannot agree, custody is considered “contested” and the judge in the divorce must make “just and reasonable” decisions based on the children’s best interests. The judge may order the parties to first participate in mediation to try again to come to agreement. 

In most cases, each parent must file a proposed parenting plan, which is a detailed document setting out proposals for things like: 

  • The parent’s requests for legal custody decision-making authority and scheduled physical placement
  • If joint legal custody is proposed, how they will handle disagreements over important decisions concerning the child
  • Details about his or her home and work
  • Proposed child care arrangements
  • Proposals concerning school, doctors, payment of medical and child care expenses, religious commitments, the child’s schedule during holidays and summer breaks, and electronic communications between the child and parents
  • Transfers of money between the parties like child support, family support and alimony


The judge must look at everything relevant to a child’s best interest, without regard to a parent’s gender or race. In particular, the judge must weigh:

  • Parents’ wishes
  • Child’s wishes
  • Child’s relationship with each parent, siblings and anyone else significant to the child’s best interest
  • History of parent-child time together, including “amount and quality,” and proposed changes to “custodial roles” and “life-style” to allow time together after divorce
  • Child’s “adjustment to the home, school, religion and community”
  • Child’s age and “developmental and educational needs” that will change over time
  • Negative impact on the child’s “intellectual, physical, or emotional well-being” of physical or mental health issues of a parent, child or anyone else in a parent’s home
  • Child’s need for “predictability and stability” from regular, meaningful physical placement periods
  • Child care availability
  • Quality and reasonableness of the parents’ ability and willingness to cooperate and communicate
  • Parental willingness to facilitate the relationship of the child with the other parent
  • Abuse, neglect and criminal history of a parent, someone he or she is dating, or someone who will live with him or her 

In all of these matters, if one parent has a history of abuse or chemical dependency, Wisconsin law has special provisions for how these matters must be handled to keep everyone safe.

This is only an introduction to a detailed area of Wisconsin law. Questions about a particular situation can be answered by an experienced, knowledgeable attorney.




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Hannula Halom & Scherz Attorneys
515 Belknap Street
Superior, WI 54880

Phone: 715-718-3621
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