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Wisconsin Child Custody & Placement Laws

Questions answered in this article:
What is Child Custody?  |  What is Physical Placement?  |  Who gets custody over a child in a divorce?  |   How do I change custody or placement arrangements?
Jump to a section:
Sole Custody  |  Joint Custody  |  Primary Placement  |  Shared Placement  |  Best Interests  |  Wisconsin Relocation Law  |  Maternal Rights  |  Paternity Rights

What is Child Custody?

Child custody. In Wisconsin, “custody” refers to the right to make major decisions for your child and has nothing to do with where your child lives day-to-day. Major decisions include choice of religion, choice of school, decisions regarding health care, and whether the child can obtain a driver’s license, join the military, or get married while still a minor.

There are two kinds of custody in Wisconsin: Sole and Joint.

  1. 1. Sole custody is when only one parent has the right to make major decisions for the child.
  2. 2. Joint custody is when the parents equally share all major decision-making rights. There is a presumption that joint custody is best for the child.

Sole custody is rare and is only ordered under unique circumstances.

What is Physical Placement?

Physical Placement. “Placement” refers to the right to visit or live with your child and, more specifically, to where your child sleeps at night. There are also two types of placement: Primary and Shared.

  1. 1. Primary Placement is when the child spends more than 75 percent of his or her overnights with only one parent—even if the child visits with the other parent frequently.
  2. 2. Shared placement is when the child spends the night with each parent more than 25 percent of the time.

Courts are obligated to try to maximize the time the child spends with each parent. So, while there is no presumption that parenting time should be equal, the courts endeavor to ensure the child has the best relationship possible with each parent.

Who gets custody over a child in a divorce?

Best Interests

When a court is deciding what kind of custody and placement arrangements to impose, it is guided by the child’s best interests. The court determines a child’s best interests by considering and weighing several important factors. Some of those factors include: the parents’ and the child’s wishes, the child’s relationships with each parent, the historical division of parenting tasks within the family, the parents’ and child’s mental and physical health, and the parents’ ability to co-parent. Many other factors may also impact a court’s custody or placement determination.

However, it is urban legend that children get to choose which parent they live with when they turn 13 (or reach some other magical age). In Wisconsin, children under 18 years old have a say, but they cannot decide whom to live with. The child’s wishes and preferences are often investigated by an attorney appointed to help the court ascertain the child’s best interests. This attorney is called a Guardian ad Litem.

How do I change my custody or placement orders?

How do I change custody or placement arrangements?

Life Happens. Sometimes circumstances change and the arrangements that you agreed to or that the court ordered no longer work for your family. The court can modify custody or placement arrangements, or parents who agree to modify their arrangements can do so without litigating the issues by mediating a new agreement or by filing a Stipulation with the court.

If your original custody or placement order is less than two years old, you must prove the current arrangements are imminently harmful or dangerous to your child in order to change them (there are some other limited exceptions, though). If your original order has been in effect for more than two years, you must only prove that there has been a substantial change of circumstances since the time of your original order. In both instances, you must prove that modifying your custody or placement order is in your child’s best interests.

Wisconsin Child Support Calculator

Your physical placement schedule will impact how much child support is ordered in your case. Head over to our child support calculator to figure out what child support might be ordered in your case.


Wisconsin Relocation Law

Sometimes one parent wants to move out of state or far away from the other parent for reasons like a job change or to be closer to a new significant other. There are very specific requirements that parents are required to follow if they desire to move out of state. Learn about Wisconsin’s child relocation laws here.

Know Your Parental Rights

Maternal Rights

In Wisconsin, if you are an unmarried mother, you presumptively have sole legal custody of your child unless and until the Court establishes paternity and sets custody orders at a paternity hearing. If you have questions about your rights or obligations as an unmarried mother, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Paternity Rights

Wisconsin’s paternity laws are complicated and can be confusing. Our skilled paternity lawyers can guide you through the process in order to establish paternity and set custody and placement orders. It’s important to establish paternity as soon as possible. Learn more about paternity here.

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Location &contact

Milwaukee/Tosa – 933 N Mayfair Rd, Suite 300, Milwaukee, WI 53226

Fox Point – 8651 N. Port Washington Rd. Suite A, Fox Point, WI 53217

Downtown Milwaukee – 1433 N Water St, Floor 4 – Suite 428, Milwaukee, WI 53202

Menomonee Falls – 11414 W Park Pl – Suite 202, Milwaukee, WI 53224

Brookfield – 200 S. Executive Drive, Suite 101, Brookfield, WI 53005

Waukesha – N19 W24400 Riverwood Dr Suite 350, Waukesha, WI 53188

Kenosha – 1213 55th Street Suite 101 Kenosha, WI 53140

Appleton – 5497 W Waterford Ln Suite E Appleton, WI 54913

West Bend18 E Washington St. Suite B West Bend, WI 53090

Madison – 811 E Washington Ave. Suite 418, Madison, WI 53703

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