Child Custody in Wisconsin: The Best Interests of the Child

Learn about the "best interests" standard and how it applies to child custody cases in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin courts use the best interests of the child standard to make decisions about custody and visitation of a child when the parents are separated or divorcing. This means the court will look at the child's and parents' circumstances and will evaluate several factors to determine what custody award and parenting plan is in the child's best interests. The judge can order sole custody to one parent or joint custody to both parents.

Before the judge will make a custody and visitation order, parents must attend a court-sponsored mediation session to try to reach a custody agreement. If they aren't able to agree, each parent must submit a proposed custody and visitation plan to the judge. The plan must state the parent's proposed custody and visitation schedule, where the parent lives and plans to live for the next two years, and where the parent works, and include a proposal about where the child will go to school, who will provide child care when the parents are unavailable, and what doctor will provide medical care for the child.

The proposed plan should also state how holidays and school vacations will be divided between the parents, how medical and other expenses will be paid, and who will make decisions about the child's education, medical care, religious upbringing, and extracurricular activities.  Finally, the plan should describe how the child will keep in contact with the other parent and how the parents will resolve disagreements about custody and visitation. (If the parents are able to agree on all of these issues, they'll submit a plan to the court together, which the judge will approve as long as it appears to be in the child's best interests.)

The court will consider each parenting plan along with several factors to help determine what is best for the child's physical, emotional, and mental health. Factors the judge will consider include the wishes of the parents and child, the child's relationship with each parent, the child's adjustment to home, school, religion, and community, the physical and emotional needs of the child, and how likely the parents are to cooperate and communicate with each other.

The judge will then make orders for physical and legal custody. The child will live with the parent who has primary physical custody. Unless there is a history of child abuse or neglect, the parents will likely have joint legal custody of the child, meaning they both may make decisions about the child's education and medical treatment. Both parents will still have access to the child's medical, dental, and school records. The judge will also determine a visitation schedule (also called parenting time) for the noncustodial parent. This can include midweek visits, weekends, alternate holidays, and portions of school vacations.

Once the judge's order is final, parents may modify custody and visitation only if they both agree or if there has been a significant change in circumstances. A change in circumstances may include one parent moving to another city or state, the child changing schools, or one parent's inability to care for the child.

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