Adultery in Wisconsin: Does Cheating Affect Alimony?

If you’re getting divorced in Wisconsin, and your spouse has cheated on you, will it have an impact on any alimony award?

By , Attorney

When you're divorcing an unfaithful spouse, you might be wondering if you're entitled to alimony. Every state's alimony laws are different; here's a breakdown of how Wisconsin's alimony laws address adultery.

An Overview of Alimony in Wisconsin

Alimony is called "spousal maintenance" in Wisconsin. Maintenance is court-ordered money paid by one spouse (the "paying spouse") to the other spouse (the "supported spouse") during or after a divorce. Although alimony isn't appropriate in every case, a judge will award alimony in certain cases to equalize the spouses' standard of living following a divorce. Spousal maintenance can ensure that the lower-income or unemployed spouse isn't totally impoverished when the marriage ends.

Temporary Alimony

While a divorce is pending (going through the court system), it's common for one spouse to have a harder than the other making ends meet. For this reason, the needier spouse can go to court and ask the judge to issue an order for alimony that remains in effect until the divorce is finalized. The goals of this temporary alimony (also called "rehabilitative alimony") are to help the receiving spouse adjust to life after the divorce and to obtain vocational rehabilitation such as education or job training to help the spouse enter the workforce and become self-sufficient. If the judge issues a final alimony order when the divorce is finalized, it will override any temporary alimony award.

Long-Term Alimony

Long-term alimony (sometimes called "permanent alimony") is usually awarded in long-term marriages where one spouse gave up a career to support the other spouse's career pursuits or to care for children. Permanent alimony awards can continue for a set number of years (usually the number of years the couple was married). However, despite the name, a permanent alimony award can end when the supported spouse remarries or either spouse dies.

How Wisconsin Courts Determine Alimony

Judges have a great deal of leeway when deciding whether to award spousal maintenance and how much to award. A judge's alimony decision must be fair and reasonable, and it must be based on the following factors, which can be weighted as the court sees fit:

  • the length of the marriage
  • each spouse's age, physical health, and emotional health
  • property received by each spouse in the divorce
  • each spouse's education and training
  • the supported spouse's earning capacity (taking into account the spouse's training, employment skills, work experience, length of absence from the job market, custodial responsibilities for children, and the time and expense necessary to acquire enough education or training to be gainfully employed)
  • the supported spouse's ability to become self-supporting at a standard of living that's reasonably comparable to the standard of living during the marriage
  • any agreement the spouses made, either before or during the marriage, concerning their financial or service contributions and future compensation
  • one spouse's contributions to the education, training, or increased earning power of the other spouse, and
  • any other relevant factor.

Adultery is not mentioned in this list of factors, meaning that judges in Wisconsin cannot consider marital misconduct when making decisions about alimony.

In Wisconsin, the sole purpose of alimony is to ensure that neither spouse becomes destitute when the marriage ends—alimony isn't meant to punish spouses for bad conduct while they were married. Judges are responsible for making alimony decisions in a fair and reasonable manner.

Does Committing Adultery in Wisconsin Affect Whether the Court Will Grant a Divorce?

Wisconsin is a "no-fault" divorce state. In a no-fault divorce, you won't have to provide evidence to the judge about why your marriage ended. Instead, you need to state only that you believe that your marriage is irretrievably broken (beyond repair). (Wis. Stat. § 767.315 (2021).)

Some states allow divorces based on fault grounds like cruelty, abandonment or desertion, and adultery. However, Wisconsin doesn't allow fault-based divorces. In other words, a Wisconsin judge won't consider evidence of adultery, or any other kind of fault, when deciding whether to grant a divorce petition. For Wisconsin judges, it only matters that the marriage failed; it doesn't matter why.

Does Adultery Impact Child Custody or Support Decisions?

A child's best interests—not the parents' marital fidelity—are at the heart of any custody decision. In most cases, one spouse's affair won't have any impact on a custody decision. However, if one parent deserted the family for an affair or squandered the family's money on a lover and left the kids without food to eat, that parent might not receive custody. In other words, even though adultery doesn't have any bearing on whether you can get divorced, adultery might potentially affect other parts of the divorce proceedings, like child custody.