Wisconsin Divorce FAQ

Get answers to the most common questions about divorce in Wisconsin, including how much it costs, how long it takes, and how to get help.

By , Retired Judge

The divorce process can often seem overwhelming. You have to deal with the emotional and practical changes that come with ending a marriage, while trying to navigate a legal system that's probably unfamiliar. And if you're like most people, you probably also have money worries. But you can find answers to your questions about divorce laws in Wisconsin, as well as the help you need.

Who can file for divorce in Wisconsin?

In order to file for divorce in Wisconsin, you must meet the state's residency requirements. In the period just before you start the legal process, you or your spouse must have resided:

  • in Wisconsin for at least six months, and
  • in the county where you file the divorce papers for at least 30 days..

(Wis. Stat. § 767.301 (2022).)

Note that gay and lesbian couples have the same legal rights in divorce as opposite sex couples. But same-sex divorce sometimes involves extra complications, particularly for couples who lived together before same-sex marriage was legal.

What are the legal grounds for divorce in Wisconsin?

Some states provide for both "fault-based" and "no-fault" divorce. Wisconsin is strictly a no-fault divorce state. This means courts won't consider either spouse's misconduct when deciding whether to grant the divorce, how to divide property, or whether to award alimony (known as "spousal maintenance" in Wisconsin).

The only legal reason ("ground") for divorce in Wisconsin is that the marriage is "irretrievably broken." This just means that the couple can't get along, and there's no reasonable chance of that changing.

If both you and your spouse haven't stated in the divorce papers that your marriage is broken beyond repair, you won't be able to get divorced unless:

  • the two of you have voluntarily lived apart for at least 12 continuous months just before you file the divorce petition, or
  • a judge holds a hearing and finds that your marriage is irretrievably broken, perhaps after requiring you to seek marriage counseling.

(Wis. Stat. § 767.315 (2022).)

Does Wisconsin require separation before divorce?

Wisconsin doesn't require that couples separate before divorce (unless that's how they prove that their marriage is broken, as discussed above).

Of course, many couples do decide to live apart before they're divorced. If you're thinking about separating, you should consider whether moving out of the family home—either before or during divorce—is in your best interest.

Note that Wisconsin also offers "legal separation" as an alternative to divorce. (Wis. Stat. § 767.35 (2022).)

How much does divorce cost in Wisconsin?

When you file your initial divorce forms, you'll need to pay a filing fee. As of September 2022, 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 electronic 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 you qualify for the waiver.

If you need to "serve" your spouse with the divorce papers (by having them hand-delivered by a process server), you'll probably incur a small fee for that service. (Learn about service requirements and the rest of the divorce filing process in Wisconsin.)

Beyond the filing fee, the cost of divorce will depend on the specifics of your case, especially:

How long will it take to get a divorce in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin law requires a waiting period of 120 days before you can schedule a final hearing to get your divorce. The waiting period starts when:

  • you and your spouse file a joint divorce petition, or
  • the spouse who filed a regular petition serves the other spouse with the divorce papers.

(Wis. Stat. § 767.335 (2022).)

As with cost, the actual amount of time your divorce will take depends on the circumstances in your case. If your divorce is contested, you'll have to go through a number of legal steps that can add several months to the process. And if you and your spouse aren't able to reach a settlement agreement at some point (more on that below), going to trial will require even more time—sometimes longer than a year. Court backlogs can also make the entire process take longer.

How is marital property divided in Wisconsin?

States use one of two different theories when judges are dividing marital property in divorce: equitable distribution or community property. Wisconsin is one of just a handful of community property states. When judges are dividing property in Wisconsin divorces, they start out by presuming that all marital property should be divided equally. But they may decide on a different split after considering a number of circumstances spelled out in the law. (Wis. Stat. § 767.61 (2022).)

Attributing a value to a couple's assets when distributing property is usually pretty straightforward. But it can get tricky for some types of property, such as family-owned businesses or retirement accounts. You may need to hire an expert to help deal with complicated assets like this.

How is child custody decided in Wisconsin?

All decisions about the legal and physical custody of children in any Wisconsin divorce must be based on what would be in the children's best interests.

When judges are deciding what's best for the children (or whether to approve the parents' parenting agreement), they'll consider several factors, including:

  • each parent's wishes as to custody
  • the child's age and the child's developmental and educational needs at different ages
  • whether the mental or physical health of a parent, minor child, or other person living in a proposed household negatively affects the child's well-being, and
  • whether there's evidence of domestic violence.

What are the child support guidelines in Wisconsin?

Like all states in the U.S., Wisconsin has guidelines that include detailed rules for deciding who must pay child support and how much those payments should be. Learn all about how child support is calculated in Wisconsin, including when support amounts may depart from the guidelines.

How does alimony work in Wisconsin?

When deciding whether to award alimony in a Wisconsin divorce, as well as the amount and duration, a judge will consider several factors, including:

  • the length of the marriage
  • the age and physical and emotional health of both spouses
  • the property division in the divorce, and
  • the educational level of each spouse at the time of marriage and at the time of the divorce.

Temporary spousal maintenance is available while the divorce is in progress, if the judge believes it's warranted.

Can we agree to an out-of-court settlement in our Wisconsin divorce?

Yes, you may agree with your spouse about how to handle the issues in your divorce at any point during the process, from before you've filed the divorce papers right up to just before a trial. In fact, courts strongly encourage settlements.

If you've worked out all your issues, you'll normally put the details in a written divorce settlement agreement and submit the signed agreement to the court. Typically, the judge will approve your agreement at a hearing and sign your final divorce judgment.

What happens if we can't agree on a divorce settlement?

If you aren't able to agree with your spouse about one or more of the legal issues involved in ending your marriage, you'll need to go to trial to have a judge resolve the disputes for you. Anytime you need a trial, your divorce will take longer and cost more. So it's in your best interest to do everything you can to come to a settlement agreement that's fair to both you and your spouse.

When can I get an annulment in Wisconsin?

If you want to get an annulment, you'll need to convince a judge that you meet one of the narrow grounds for voiding a marriage. (Wis. Stat. § 767.313(1) (2022).)

Learn more about annulment in Wisconsin, including the allowable reasons, the legal process, and the effects of annulling a marriage.

Where can I get more information and help with my Wisconsin divorce?

You can find answers to other divorce-related questions in our section on divorce in Wisconsin.

Here are some other resources:

  • Court services. You can find divorce information and court forms (including forms for a settlement agreement) on the Wisconsin Courts website.
  • Mediation. If you want the cost-and-time advantages of an uncontested divorce but are having trouble agreeing with your spouse about all of the issues, divorce mediation can help you find solutions and common ground. At the end of the process, the mediator typically will prepare a written divorce settlement agreement.
  • Online divorce. If you've reached a complete settlement but need more help with the uncontested divorce forms than you can get through the court's website, you might try an online divorce service that will provide you with the completed forms, based on your answers to a questionnaire.
  • Lawyers. Of course, there are some divorces that require a lawyer's help. If that's true in your case, here are some questions to ask before hiring a divorce attorney.