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Child Custody in Wisconsin: Determining the Best Interests of the Child

by | May 1, 2024

Child custody refers to the legal and physical responsibilities and rights associated with raising a child. The state’s laws prioritize the best interests of the child when determining custody arrangements, taking into account basic factors such as each parent’s overall relationship with the child and their ability to provide for his or her needs.

These decisions are made through court proceedings if parents cannot reach an agreement on their own. Child custody is significant in Wisconsin law as it ensures that children have stable and supportive environments in which to grow and thrive, while also protecting their rights to maintain relationships with both parents whenever possible.

The family law office of Vanden Heuvel & Dineen provides knowledgeable and experienced legal counsel and representation to clients considering divorce, legal separation, or child custody disputes. Contact us for a free case review.

The Legal Approach to Child Custody in Wisconsin

Wisconsin approaches child custody matters with a strong emphasis on the best interests of the child. The state recognizes both physical and legal custody, with physical custody determining where the child lives and legal custody refers to decision-making authority regarding the child’s upbringing. Co-parenting arrangements that foster positive relationships between the child and both parents are also highly favored in many court decisions unless circumstances such as abuse or neglect necessitate sole custody.

When determining custody arrangements for divorcing parents of minors, courts consider factors such as each parent’s relationship with the child, their ability to cooperate and communicate effectively, the child’s preferences (if they are old enough), and any history of domestic violence or substance abuse. Mediation is often utilized to help parents reach agreements outside of court, but if necessary, judges will make decisions based on what they believe is in the child’s best interests.

A Deeper Dive: The Primary Differences Between Legal and Physical Custody

Legal Custody > the right of a parent to make important decisions on behalf of their child, such as matters related to education, physical well-being, and religion. It encompasses the responsibility for major life choices that affect the well-being and upbringing of the child. 

Physical Custody > determines where the child predominantly resides and with whom they spend most of their time, including day-to-day care and decision-making regarding the child’s daily routine. 

In Wisconsin law, both legal and physical custody can be granted jointly to both parents or solely to a singular parent based on factors such as the best interests of the child, parental involvement, and ability to provide a stable environment. 

Joint vs. Sole Custody 

Both joint and sole custody options are available for parents going through divorce or separation. Joint custody involves both parents sharing decision-making responsibilities and parenting time with the child, promoting continued involvement of each parent in the child’s life. Factors such as the ability to communicate effectively, cooperate, and prioritize the child’s best interests are considered when determining whether joint custody is appropriate. On the other hand, sole custody grants one parent full decision-making authority and physical custody of the child, with visitation rights typically granted to the non-custodial parent. The court will consider various factors such as each parent’s relationship with the child, stability, and willingness to support the child’s relationship with the alternate parent when making custody determinations. 

Factors Determining the Best Interests of the Child

When considering the best interests of the child, rulings are determined by a variety of factors outlined in state law. These factors include: 

  • The child’s wishes, depending on age and maturity
  • The mental and physical health of the parents
  • The child’s adjustment to home, school, and community
  • The relationship of the child with each parent and sibling (including each parent’s willingness and ability to facilitate a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent)
  • The availability of each parent to care for the child (including each parent’s capacity to live up to the child’s needs for love, affection, and emotional support) 

Plus, questions like:

  • Is there evidence of cooperation and open communication between parents?
  • Is there any evidence of abuse or neglect, either regarding the child/children or the parent(s)?

These factors are weighed by judges when making decisions regarding custody and placement arrangements in order to ensure that children are placed in safe and stable environments that prioritize their overall well-being.

Other Types of Child Custody Arrangements

In addition to legal custody and physical custody, in Wisconsin, other arrangements can be facilitated by the courts for the well-being of children. 

Bird’s Nest Custody

This is a relatively new and emerging concept that emphasizes that the children remain in the family home while the parents take turns living with them. The Bird’s Nest approach aims to minimize disruption for the children by allowing them to maintain a stable environment that is familiar to them.

The parents rotate in and out of the family home on a predetermined schedule, providing consistency for the children while also promoting co-parenting and effective communication between parents. Bird’s Nest custody requires a high level of cooperation and flexibility from both parents, as well as thoughtful consideration of logistics such as living arrangements and financial responsibilities. While this arrangement can be beneficial for some families, it may not be suitable for all situations, particularly in cases where there is significant conflict between the parents or concerns about safety. 

Shared Custody and Equal Placement

Shared custody and equal placement are concepts that prioritize the best interests of the child by ensuring both parents have ample opportunity to maintain active and meaningful relationships with their children following a divorce or separation. Shared custody refers to a parenting arrangement in which both parents have the legal right and responsibility to make decisions regarding their child’s upbringing, while equal placement involves dividing the child’s time equally between each parent’s household.

Wisconsin law emphasizes the importance of creating a parenting plan that outlines specific guidelines for shared custody and equal placement.

Child Custody and Parenting Plans

The Importance of Completing an Effective Parenting Plan

A parenting plan is a court-ordered document that outlines specific provisions related to the custody and visitation of minor children during and after a divorce or separation. Several mandatory components must be included to ensure the best interests of the child are upheld. Such components typically include: 

  • A residential schedule detailing where the child will live on weekdays, weekends, holidays, and school breaks
  • A decision-making framework outlining how major decisions regarding the child’s education, healthcare, and religious upbringing will be made
  • Communication guidelines for parents to stay informed about their child’s well-being
  • Methods for resolving disputes that may arise between co-parents

Tips for Creating an Effective Parenting Plan

It is important to carefully consider each parent’s availability, work schedules, and living arrangements before drafting the plan. Communication between parents should be open and transparent at all times in order to establish clear guidelines for decision-making regarding the child’s education, healthcare, and extracurricular activities. 

The parenting plan should also detail the visitation schedule, holiday rotations, and transportation arrangements to minimize conflicts and confusion. It is always recommended to seek the guidance of a family law attorney specializing in Wisconsin custody law to ensure that the plan complies with state laws and is fair to both parties involved. 

The Custody Evaluation Process

The Role of Custody Evaluations in Disputed Cases

Custody evaluations are important components of family law in that they provide an unbiased and thorough assessment of the factors influencing the best interests of the child during and after a separation or divorce. The evaluator in such cases will conduct interviews with both parents and observe interactions between parents and children––they may also consult with teachers, therapists, or other relevant individuals to seek as many unbiased considerations as possible. The evaluation report serves as a valuable tool for the court to make informed decisions regarding custody arrangements based on factors such as each parent’s ability to meet the child’s physical and emotional needs, their willingness to cooperate in co-parenting, and any history of abuse or neglect. Custody evaluators are typically appointed by the court and, in all cases, must be licensed mental health professionals with specialized training in family law and child development. 

Changing a Child Custody Order

When Can a Custody Order be Amended or Altered?

Custody orders may be modified under certain circumstances, including a significant change in circumstances that affects the best interests of the child, such as a parent’s relocation, job loss, or remarriage. Also, if one parent is found to be unfit or incapable of providing proper care for the child, a modification of custody may be warranted. In all instances, the court will always consider what is in the best interest of the child.

VHD Law: The Authority in Wisconsin Family Law

If you have a family law question––or any concerns regarding divorce, legal separation, or child custody in the state of Wisconsin––the attorneys at Vanden Heuvel & Dineen can help. Contact us today to learn more and schedule your free case consultation.

Written by Vanden Heuvel & Dineen, S.C.

Family Law

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