The experienced West Bend child custody attorneys at Karp & Iancu, S.C., can represent you during this difficult period. If you are involved in a divorce or paternity case we can advise you of your rights and obligations under the law. And we can zealously and effectively represent your interests in court. We understand that child custody is a serious and sensitive matter, which is why we always strive to provide compassionate, professional legal advice for the benefit of you and your family.
Custody vs. Placement
The term “child custody” is often used broadly–and incorrectly–to describe which parent has physical possession of a child, i.e., which parent the child will actually live with. But Wisconsin law actually defines “custody” and “placement” as separate concepts. Here is a brief rundown of the terminology:
- Sole Custody means that one parent has the exclusive right to take care of making major decisions concerning a child, including where they will live, go to school, and so forth.
- Joint Custody means that both parents must jointly exercise decision-making authority for the child, even if the child still lives primarily with one parent.
- Primary Physical Placement refers to whether the child will live most of the time (roughly 75 percent of evenings).
- Shared Physical Placement means that the child spends the night with each parent at least 25 percent of the time.
Ideally, both parents will come together and agree on both custody and placement. Indeed, Wisconsin courts tend to favor negotiated parenting plans as they reduce the need for litigation, and the parents themselves are more likely to stick by a schedule they have agreed to in writing. And even if the parents fail to negotiate an agreement initially, they may participate in mediation, a process where a third party facilitates discussion in a confidential manner outside of a formal courtroom setting.
What a Wisconsin Judge Looks for When Deciding a Custody or Placement Dispute
Unfortunately, there are child custody disputes that cannot be resolved through either voluntary negotiation or mediation. In such cases a Wisconsin judge will need to decide any unresolved issues regarding custody and physical placement. There is no single factor or piece of evidence that a judge will look for in making such decisions. Instead, state law lists a number of factors for the judge to consider in determining what would be in the “best interest of the child.” These factors include:
- the wishes of each parent, and the child if they are old enough to express them;
- the nature of the child’s relationship with each parent;
- the mental and physical health of the parents and the child;
- each parent’s respective history of caring for the child;
- the parents’ ability to get along with one another for purposes of co-parenting the child;
- each parent’s employment and financial situation;
- whether there has been a history of child abuse or family violence;
- the report of a guardian ad litem, a third party appointed to represent the child’s legal interests in the custody proceeding independent of the parents.
As a general rule, Wisconsin courts tend to favor joint custody and granting each parent some periods of physical placement, unless the evidence shows that would be harmful to the child. And once again, it is important to emphasize that no one factor will necessarily determine a judge’s ruling. For instance, just because the child tells the judge they wish to live with one parent, that does not obligate the court to award physical placement on that basis.
Can Child Custody Be Modified Later?
Whether child custody issues are resolved by agreement or through a judge’s decision, there may come a point in the future where either or both parents wish to change the arrangements. It is possible to modify a child custody or physical placement order. But such modifications must be approved by the court and only under one of the following circumstances:
- Both parents agree to the changes and submit a joint stipulation to the judge for approval.
- The child is in danger and a modification is necessary to protect their health and safety.
- There has been some “substantial change in circumstances” of the child or parents that would justify modification in the child’s best interests.