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Understanding Wisconsin’s Grounds for Divorce

by | Feb 15, 2024

Going through a divorce is difficult, even when the marriage has been over for a long time. While life on the other side can feel like a fresh start, the legal proceedings are often confusing and overwhelming.

At its core, divorce legally dissolves a marriage between two people. On a personal level, there is always an underlying reason—one or both partners are unhappy, major life goals no longer align, trust has been destroyed, etc.

In legal terms, these personal reasons translate into “grounds” for divorce.

At Vanden Heuvel & Dineen, S.C., our attorneys have over 40 years of experience guiding clients through divorce and other family law matters. We are here to help you understand the grounds for divorce in Wisconsin—the very first step in the process. This article provides an overview of everything you need to know.

Is Wisconsin a No-Fault Divorce State?

The first thing you need to know is that Wisconsin is a “no-fault” divorce state. That means you do not have to prove that your spouse did something wrong in order to get a divorce.

Before the no-fault movement in the 1960s, couples had to provide evidence of adultery, abandonment, abuse, or other “faults” by their spouse to get a divorce. The no-fault system made the process less adversarial by allowing divorce without blame or lengthy fact-finding.

In Wisconsin, all you need to show is that the marriage is irretrievably broken. So then, does that mean you can get divorced for any reason? Not necessarily.

What are the Grounds for Divorce in Wisconsin?

While Wisconsin is a no-fault state, you still must demonstrate legal grounds for divorce. There are two primary ways to show your marriage is irretrievably broken:

Irretrievable Breakdown

An irretrievable breakdown means that the marital relationship is so damaged that there is no hope for reconciliation. To demonstrate this in court, one or both spouses must state under oath that the marriage is irretrievably broken.

If both spouses agree on this fact, the judge may grant a divorce right away. However, if only one spouse is petitioning for divorce, more requirements must be met.

Living Apart

If only one spouse petitions for divorce based on an irretrievable breakdown, the judge can still grant the divorce if you have been living apart for a specific duration. In Wisconsin, you must have lived separate and apart for at least 12 continuous months prior to filing for divorce. You must show actual physical separation and independent living arrangements during this time.

Even if you have not lived separately for an entire year, a judge can still grant the divorce if there are irresolvable marital problems and no chance of reconciliation. One of our experienced family law attorneys can explain this in more detail during your initial free consultation.

The Divorce Process in Wisconsin

As you can see, getting a divorce in Wisconsin does not require hard proof or documented wrongdoing by your spouse. However, after the decision to divorce is made, the legal process can become complex. Here is where an experienced VHD Law divorce attorney can guide you through the following steps:

Filing for Divorce

To file for divorce in Wisconsin, you or your spouse must have lived in the state for at least six months and in the county where you are filing for at least 30 days. When completing the initial paperwork, you will state the “grounds” for divorce (which we saw above.) Paperwork includes:

  • Summons: Formally delivers notice of the divorce to your spouse
  • Petition: Written request documenting your desire to dissolve the marriage

Our attorneys at VHD Law excel at properly completing these initiator documents, so don’t worry about their complexity. After the documents are served, the receiving party has 20 days to sign.

Temporary Orders and Hearings

Temporary orders establish legally binding rules to follow while the divorce is pending. Standard temporary orders relate to:

  • Child custody and placement schedules
  • Child support payments
  • Spousal maintenance (alimony)
  • Use of property and financial accounts
  • Living arrangements
  • Payment of bills and debts

These orders aim to stabilize family relationships and finances during an emotionally turbulent time.

Mandatory Waiting Period

Sometimes, claiming that a marriage is irretrievably broken may be a bit premature. To prevent a “quick” decision and protect the interests of the parties involved, Wisconsin law requires a waiting period of 120 days before a divorce can be finalized.

This period gives you time to think things through and make sure divorce is the right choice. The final divorce hearing occurs after this period, making the dissolution of the marriage official.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Contrary to dramatic portrayals in movies and TV, divorce does not have to be a combative, nasty battle. In many cases, both parties can reach amicable agreements on how to part ways. This is where alternative dispute resolution methods come in.


Mediation utilizes a neutral third-party mediator to help couples compromise and settle divorce matters cooperatively. It is typically faster, less expensive, and less emotionally damaging than going to court. Mediation is ideal when couples want to preserve an amicable relationship, especially if they have children. It may not work as well for complex or contentious divorces.

Collaborative Divorce

In the collaborative divorce process, each spouse has a family law attorney dedicated to reaching a settlement outside of court. All parties sign an agreement to disclose all relevant information and negotiate in good faith. The attorneys cannot go to court but provide legal advice and guidance throughout the process.

Like mediation, the goal is achieving win-win agreements. It tends to be more structured than mediation but still less adversarial than going to court.

How Can Our Attorneys Help?

Understanding the basics of grounds for divorce is just the first step. The legal intricacies that follow can be overwhelming without the proper guidance. Our team of attorneys can handle all the required paperwork and make court appearances on your behalf. We can also assist with complex divorce matters like:

  • Equitable division of marital property and assets
  • Determining reasonable spousal maintenance (alimony)
  • Establishing child custody arrangements and child support orders in the best interest of the children
  • Exploring alternative dispute resolution options like mediation or collaborative divorce

Contact VHD Law Today

Going through a divorce often brings up many questions and uncertainties about the future. Thankfully, Wisconsin’s no-fault divorce approach makes it easier to begin the divorce procedures.

If you’re considering divorce or have already decided to end your marriage, don’t face this challenging time alone. The attorneys at Vanden Heuvel & Dineen, S.C. are here to provide the answers and expert legal advice you need.

Contact our office today to schedule a free initial consultation.

Written by Vanden Heuvel & Dineen, S.C.


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