Know Your Legal Rights: Determining Child Custody in Wisconsin


Know Your Legal Rights is a bimonthly column distributed by the State Bar of Wisconsin. It is written by members of the Wisconsin State Bar’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS), which connects Wisconsin residents with attorneys across the state. Learn more about

By Attorney AnnMarie Sylla, Schott, Bublitz & Engel, sc, Waukesha

I recently rewatched “Mrs. Doubtfire” – a classic 1990s family comedy that also deals with the serious topics of divorce and child custody. (Spoilers ahead.)

I expected to feel a little nostalgic and enjoy Robin Williams’ clean comedic routine. But this time, the dramatic scenes of the parents arguing over their impending divorce and opposing parenting styles within earshot of the children, and the judge making his decision granting sole custody to the mother, struck me differently. .

For one thing, it’s a California-based fictional film, and the laws dictating how a court determines custody and placement can be very different than in Wisconsin.

On the other hand, the mock judge’s decision based on what he alone determined to be in the best interests of the children – despite the father’s best efforts at co-parenting (albeit unconventional), financial stability and desire to spend meaningful time with his children – seemed too realistic. The film ends with the mother agreeing to joint custody anyway, believing the judge’s decision to grant the father minimal supervised visitation was too harsh. But, as the credits rolled on, it was hard not to think, “If this story wasn’t fiction, how much damage could have been caused by the judge’s decision?”

Custody vs placement in Wisconsin

When a relationship between two parents comes to an end, whether it’s an amicable separation or a contentious divorce, many decisions must be made about how they will raise their child. When parents cannot agree on these important decisions on their own, the law gives the court immense responsibility (and enormous discretion) to decide what is in the best interests of the child.

Family court judges are required to assume that, in most cases, joint legal custody is in the best interests of the child, which means that each parent should have equal decision-making power over the consent to marriage, obtaining a driver’s license, authorization for non-emergency medical care, choosing a school and religious education.

Similarly, placement schedules are meant to maximize meaningful time with each parent taking into account the wishes of the child, the level of cooperation between the parents, the child’s age and developmental needs, and other factors. More cases involve physical placement disputes than disagreements over legal decision-making authority.

Despite a uniform set of laws that govern the entire state, Wisconsin courts handle custody and placement issues quite differently. Even within the same county, there can be a wide range of what each family court judge considers important or relevant in making certain decisions, which can lead to inconsistencies and unpredictability for parties.

Consider the details

Sometimes courts look too broadly at the facts or focus too narrowly on the process of a case and therefore fail to fully consider or understand how a shared custody order or shared placement schedule will apply or will actually affect a particular family. There are many details parties should fully consider when determining how they will co-parent that, if handled appropriately, can reduce the likelihood of a problematic court order. For example:

Work: Does one parent work a traditional 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. schedule, but the other works from home or has more flexibility in their work day? What if a parent has to move or a shift suddenly changes?

Daycare or school: how consistent is the child’s daily schedule for the next few weeks, months or years? And during the summer? How will the child’s schedule change as they grow?

Transportation: Does a parent travel occasionally for work? Does the other parent live across town? Does the school bus go to both parents’ homes?

Medical needs: Does the child need medication? Which parent manages top-ups? Who is responsible for scheduling checkups and attending appointments?

Extracurricular activities: Do the parents agree on the activities the child can participate in? Is the child busy with activities on some days of the week but not others, and what impact does this have on each parent’s time?

Spending time with friends and other family members: does the child have half-brothers or half-sisters? Does the extended family live out of state, requiring extra time during the holidays to travel?

Control your own destiny

Ultimately, family court judges are required to make decisions on custody and placement matters based sometimes on imperfect or incomplete information presented in evidence or even on the behavior of a party. in the courtroom.

This can lead to serious consequences, especially for the child. So perhaps the lesson to be learned from “Mrs. Doubtfire” should be: when the parties come to agreements based on what they each think is in their child’s best interests instead of leaving those important decisions to a judge, they are much more likely to be satisfied with the outcome and, more importantly, with successful cooperation. -parents.

AnnMarie Sylla is a family law attorney with Schott, Bublitz & Engel, sc in Waukesha, Wisconsin, representing individuals in southeastern Wisconsin in matters of divorce, paternity, and other custody and placement disputes. . She is a member of the Wisconsin State Bar’s Attorney Referral and Information Service, which connects Wisconsin residents with attorneys across the state. Learn more at


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