How Do I File for Divorce in Wisconsin?

Learn about the forms and steps you need to take to file for a Wisconsin divorce—as well as how to save money and time in the process.

By , Retired Judge

If you're planning on getting divorced in Wisconsin, the legal process can seem daunting. But it doesn't always have to be an ordeal, depending on your circumstances and the choices you make.

Three Ways of Filing for Divorce

There are a number of paths you can take when you file for a Wisconsin divorce:

  • You can follow the traditional route and get an attorney to represent you from the start. That way, the lawyer will take care of the divorce forms, the filing process, and all of the other legal matters in your case.
  • You can file for divorce online by using a service that will provide you with the completed forms (based on your answers to a questionnaire) and basically walk you through the process.
  • Or you can opt for the do-it-yourself route by handling the divorce on your own.

The path you decide to take will depend on your situation, including the level of cooperation with your spouse and the amount of time and money you have. Using an online divorce service will help with the paperwork (and some of the anxiety), but these services normally require that you and your spouse have already agreed about all of the issues in your divorce (more on that below).

A "pure" DIY divorce will be the cheapest option, but you'll have to spend the time to be sure you understand and follow all of Wisconsin's legal requirements for divorce. If you think you can go that route, here's a basic outline of the filing process and requirements in Wisconsin.

Before You File for Divorce

Before you actually file your initial divorce papers, you should understand some basic requirements for divorce in Wisconsin. You'll also need to do some preparation.

Residency and Jurisdiction Requirements for Divorce in Wisconsin

In order to file for divorce in the Wisconsin courts, you must meet the state's residency requirements. Either you or your spouse must have resided in Wisconsin for at least six months before you start the legal process. Also, one of you must have lived for the previous 30 days in the county where you file the divorce papers. (Wis. Stat. § 767.301 (2022).)

If your divorce judgment will address child custody, child support, or alimony (known as "maintenance" in Wisconsin), you must also meet the requirements for the court's "jurisdiction," meaning the judge's authority to issue orders on those issues.

  • Generally, any child affected by custody orders or a parenting plan must have lived in Wisconsin with a parent for at least six months just before you filed for divorce (or since birth if the child is younger than that). There are exceptions, but they can be difficult to prove. So you should speak with a lawyer if you aren't sure you meet the six-month requirements.
  • There are also complicated rules on when the divorce judgment may require a nonresident spouse to pay support. Here again, you should talk to an attorney if your spouse doesn't live in Wisconsin when you file for divorce and request support payments.

(Wis. Stat. §§ 769.201, 822.21 (2022).)

Will Your Wisconsin Divorce Be Uncontested or Contested?

Wisconsin's divorce procedures are easier when you file for an uncontested divorce. To do that, you'll need to meet the two basic requirements:

  • You and your spouse must both declare in the divorce papers that your marriage is "irretrievably broken," which basically means that there's no reasonable prospect of working out your differences. This is one of only two legal reasons (or "grounds") for divorce in Wisconsin. If you don't agree on this, a judge will need to conduct a hearing on the issue to determine whether you qualify for the second ground: that your marriage is broken beyond repair, based on the specific circumstances or the fact that you and your spouse were separated for a full year before you filed for divorce. (Wis. Stat. § 767.315 (2022).)
  • You should also have a marital settlement agreement (also known as a "stipulation" in Wisconsin) that covers all of the legal issues involved in ending your marriage, including the division of your property and debts, alimony (spousal maintenance), and, if you have minor children, child custody, parenting rights (visitation) and child support. (Wis. Stat. § 767.34 (2022).)

If you want to take advantage of the benefits of uncontested divorce but are having trouble agreeing with your spouse about all the issues, divorce mediation could help you work through the obstacles. Most mediators will also prepare a written document that reflects any agreements you've reached during the process, and some mediation services may even help with the filing process.

Preparing Wisconsin's Divorce Forms

To start the divorce process without a lawyer or the help of an online divorce service, you'll need to gather and complete a number of forms. When filling out the forms, the spouse initiating the divorce is the "petitioner," while the other spouse is the "respondent."

You can find and download the forms for starting a divorce on the Wisconsin court system's website. Or you can use the court's Family Law Forms Assistant, which will take you through a series of questions to help you determine which forms you need and complete those forms.

The most important form for starting the process is the divorce petition. There are separate forms depending on whether you and your spouse will file a joint petition and whether you have minor children or not. Because filing jointly will save money and steps in the divorce process, this is the easiest way to proceed if you and your spouse are cooperating. If you have a written settlement agreement about all or some of the issues in your divorce, you should attach that to the petition.

Your signature on the divorce petition must be notarized. With a joint petition, you and your spouse may sign at different times, as long as each of you signs in front of a notary public.

If you have any questions about the forms, or if you just want to ensure that you've completed all the necessary paperwork, you can contact your county circuit court clerk's office.

Filing Your Wisconsin Divorce Papers

In Wisconsin, you may file your divorce papers in person or electronically.

  • If you're filing in person, bring the original and two copies of the forms to the court clerk in the circuit court where you're starting the divorce. The court clerk will assign your case a number (which needs to be on every document from then on) and will give you stamped copies of the paperwork.
  • You may also use the Wisconsin court's electronic filing system. If you do this, you'll need to sign a printed copy of the petition in front of a notary, then scan the document and file the scanned version.

You'll generally have to pay a fee to file your forms. As of 2021, the basic circuit court filing fee for the initial divorce papers is $184.50, plus an additional $10 if you're requesting any support or maintenance payments. There's also a $20 fee for e-filing. If you can't afford the fee, you may file a Petition for Waiver of Fees and Costs (Affidavit of Indigency). A judge will review the information you provide to decide whether to qualify for the waiver.

With a joint petition, you and your spouse may split the filing fees.

When Does Wisconsin Require Serving and Responding to Divorce Papers?

If you filed a divorce petition on your own (that is, not a joint petition), you will need to serve your spouse with the divorce papers (including a summons) within 90 days. If your spouse will agree to accept the documents from you, have your spouse (or your spouse's attorney) sign an "admission of service."

Otherwise, unless your spouse has a lawyer, you'll typically serve the divorce papers by arranging to have them hand-delivered to your spouse by a sheriff's deputy, a private process server, or any adult who is not connected to your divorce case. If you aren't able to find your spouse or complete personal service, ask the court clerk about the other methods of service that are available, including by publishing a notice in a local newspaper.

The person who serves the papers should complete an "affidavit of service" as proof that the documents were lawfully delivered. Make sure the affidavit or the admission of service is filed with the court. (Wis. Stat. §§ 801.02, 801.11 (2022).)

After being served with the divorce papers, your spouse will then have 20 days to file a response and counterclaim. Without a response, the petitioner may proceed with a default divorce, which means that the judge could ultimately award everything the requested in the divorce petition. (Wis. Stat. §§ 767.215, 806.02 (2022).)

If you and your spouse filed a joint petition, you can skip the steps of serving and responding to the divorce petition. (Wis. Stat. § 767.215(3) (2022).)

Financial Disclosures

Early in the divorce process, Wisconsin law requires that both spouses file a financial disclosure form that includes all marital and separate assets and debts, as well as income statements. You might also have to attach recent income tax returns. You and your spouse may complete a joint disclosure if you're cooperating in the divorce.

You may file the disclosure with your initial divorce papers. Otherwise, you must file the form within 90 days after filing a joint divorce petition (or after serving the divorce papers if you didn't file jointly).

It's a good idea to gather as much of this information in advance as you can, because it's important that you be as thorough as possible in completing these forms. It's imperative that you be honest, because a spouse who deliberately fails to disclose all accounts, debts, or assets could face penalties for perjury. If you don't file the disclosure on time, the judge could simply accept as true any information your spouse has provided. (Wis. Stat. § 767.127 (2022).)

Finalizing Your Divorce

Settling your marital issues before filing your initial divorce papers will invariably get you to a final divorce judgment much more quickly than if your case were contested. But be aware that you'll still have to wait at least 120 days from when you filed a joint petition (or when the divorce papers were served) before the court will schedule a final hearing. (Wis. Stat. § 767.335 (2022).)

A Word of Caution

While filing for divorce on your own is possible, it might not always be the best idea. That's especially the case when you have significant or complicated assets to divide (like retirement accounts), you've experienced domestic violence in your marriage, your spouse already has an attorney, or the two of your just can't reach an agreement on all the issues, even after trying mediation. If you can afford it, you might also simply prefer the peace of mind that comes from turning your divorce over to a professional who knows the ins and outs of Minnesota's laws and court procedures.

Remember, you're probably going to have to live with the results of your divorce after the legal proceeding is long over. If you later realize you made a mistake, there's no guarantee you'll be able to fix it. So it pays to get it right the first time.

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