If you decide to end your marriage, there are certain issues that have to be settled. For example, if you and your spouse have children, you’ll have to decide how much time each parent is going to spend with them and how much child support has to be paid. You’ll also have to divide your property and debts.
In order to start the divorce process while representing yourself, you’ll need to complete some forms. You can obtain the forms online, from the Wisconsin Court System. These are official forms, but you should double-check with your local court to make sure the judges there will accept them.
Be thorough and complete in responding to the questions. Fill out the forms on a computer if you can. It is highly advisable to use the Wisconsin eCourt's Family Law Forms Assistant to help you locate and prepare the correct forms to start the divorce process.
If you don't want to use a computer, write or print neatly and legibly.
The forms you are required to complete differ depending on whether you have children and also on whether you are the petitioner (the spouse who initiates the divorce) or the respondent (the spouse who is served with divorce papers). Forms may also vary slightly from county to county, which is one reason why it's so important to use the Family Law Forms Assistant if you can.
The Wisconsin Court System has prepared a Basic Guide to Divorce/Legal Separation, which contains an overview of the divorce process and detailed, step-by-step instructions. You should read this before proceeding any further.
Forms can be found here.
If you and your spouse don't have any minor children (meaning, kids who are financially dependent on you and who aren't legally emancipated), you will need to prepare the following documents:
If you and your spouse do have minor children, you'll need to complete these documents.
These lists include the basic documents you'll need to prepare in virtually every case where you and your spouse can't agree about the terms of your divorce. You may need to prepare additional documents, depending on the county where you live or on your personal and financial situation.
If you're the petitioner, make two copies of all documents and hold onto the original. Eventually you will give the original to the court, one copy to your spouse, and retain the last copy for yourself.
Go to your local courthouse (the one in the county where you or your spouse are living) and ask to file the summons, petition, and confidential addendum. The clerk of court will soon assign your case a number that needs to be on every document from now on.
You’ll also need to pay a filing fee. If you can't afford to pay it, ask the clerk to give you a Petition and Waiver of Fees/Costs, Affidavit of Indigency and Order. A judge will review these materials and decide whether to waive (eliminate) all filing fees.
Ask the court clerk to give you two copies of everything, then assemble a packet for your spouse that includes everything you filed plus the summons. Serve your spouse as soon as possible after leaving.
As soon as the petitioner files the initial documents, Wisconsin's 120 day waiting period begins to run. This means that you can't have a final divorce hearing before a judge for a minimum of 120 days.
When you’ve prepared and filed your forms, you should immediately serve your spouse with the documents. Service of process is very important in the American legal system because it ensures that everyone has notice about what’s going on and an opportunity to “appear,” or argue, their point of view. Service of process ensures that no one is ever “ambushed” in a courtroom.
If your spouse is an adult who is pro se (meaning, has not hired a lawyer), then you should serve your spouse directly at the location at your spouse’s home address. If your spouse has retained a lawyer, serve the lawyer at the lawyer’s office and don’t send copies to your spouse.
If you're the petitioner and you're serving the summons and petition, special service rules apply and you must pursue one of the following options to notify your spouse that you've filed divorce papers.
Most other documents can be served by first class mail or hand delivery.
Different rules may apply if you are trying to serve someone who is very hard to locate, in the military, out-of-state, or in jail. Check with your clerk of court for more information in these unusual situations.
Both spouses have to complete a Financial Disclosure Statement. This document details each spouse’s financial picture, from employment to assets to liabilities and monthly expenses. This helps everyone to understand more about, for example, how much child support should be paid, or whether one spouse should receive alimony. It also helps the court to divide property and debts fairly. Make sure you are clear, detailed, and candid when you complete this form. File it with the court and serve it upon your spouse as well.
The Wisconsin State Law Library maintains a listing of legal assistance organizations that help low-income individuals. Some of these organizations also offer online resources to help people understand divorce in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Court System has an online self-help law center which covers divorce topics. It is a one-stop, comprehensive guide to court-sponsored resources.