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Divorce in Wisconsin: Wisconsin Divorce Law FAQs

Wisconsin divorce lawyers provide answers to frequently asked questions about divorce in Wisconsin and Wisconsin divorce laws.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are Wisconsin’s divorce laws?

To file for divorce in Wisconsin, you must be a resident of the state for at least 6 months and reside in the county you plan to file in for at least 30 days. If you meet those qualifications, you will first need to file a petition, either jointly or separately. If you file alone you will need to serve your spouse papers and submit that proof to the court. Then a 120 day waiting period begins until a final court hearing can occur.

The court must find that the marriage is irretrievably broken. This finding is usually based on the petition for the divorce and one or both parties’ testimony at the final hearing.

If one party contests the grounds, the court is still required to make a finding that the marriage is irretrievably broken if it finds no reasonable prospect of reconciliation.

How much does a divorce cost in Wisconsin?

Since each case is different, the cost of each case varies significantly. The cost depends on many factors including the number of hearings, the types of issues included, the nature of assets of one or both parties, whether a guardian ad litem is appointed to represent the children’s best interests, and whether the parties have reached agreements on some or all issues.

Do I really need to hire an attorney for a divorce in Wisconsin?

Either or both parties may appear in court and get divorced pro se, or self-represented. Before making a decision, it is best to meet with an attorney and make an informed decision about whether to proceed on your own or with counsel. I have seen many cases come back after the divorce is finalized because a mistake was made or the final order was not actually what one party thought it was.

It is often significantly more expensive to hire counsel after the fact to try to fix a mistake than to hire an attorney at the time of the divorce to make sure all issues are addressed appropriately the first time.

Does Wisconsin grant divorces based on marital fault?

No, Wisconsin is a “no fault” state. While the basis of the divorce may not be based on finding fault, a party’s misconduct can affect the property division, maintenance award, and custody and placement determinations depending on how that misconduct affected the family.

How is spousal maintenance determined during a Wisconsin divorce?

Whether maintenance is appropriate in your case depends on many factors. Some of the most significant factors for the court often are the length of the marriage, the difference in earning capacities at the time of divorce, and the age and health of each of the parties.

Is Wisconsin an alimony state?

In Wisconsin, alimony is referred to as, “spousal support”. Whether spousal support will be awarded or not will depend on the specific case and a number of factors regarding the two spouses. These factors can include the length of the marriage, age and health of the individuals, how the property is to be divided up, education and earning level of each spouse, any agreements made before or during the marriage, and the standard of living that was enjoyed during the marriage.

How are assets divided in a divorce in Wisconsin?

Martial property is divided 50/50 in the state of Wisconsin because it is considered a community property state. However, separate property that was inherited or given as a gift to an individual spouse can be excluded from the community property division guidelines. The length of the marriage, property brought in by each spouse, earned income, education, health, and other factors can impact how property is divided.

What is a wife entitled to in a divorce in Wisconsin?

According to Wisconsin’s property division laws, a wife is entitled to half of the marital property. Exceptions are made for separate property that was given to one spouse or inherited by them. Other factors can also impact property division, based on the couple’s unique situation.

Who gets the house in a divorce in Wisconsin?

During a Wisconsin divorce a judge will make decisions to divide the property as fairly among the involved parties as possible. Ownership of the house will be determined based on this approach in addition to other considerations that may impact the decision.

How long do you have to be separated before divorce in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin has a 120-day waiting period until a legal separation or a divorce is granted by the court. Parties can reconcile at any point during this waiting period.

Can I change my name at the time of divorce in Wisconsin?

Yes, the court can order a name change as part of the judgment of divorce.  Most often, this change is a return to the previous surname.

Can I get an annulment in Wisconsin instead of a divorce?

Legal annulments are granted only for very specific reasons. The court may grant an annulment if it finds:

  • A party lacked capacity to consent to the marriage, because of age, mental incapacity, or the influence of drugs or alcohol;
  • A party was induced to enter the marriage by force, duress or fraud within one year of obtaining knowledge of the fraud;
  • A party lacks the physical capacity to consummate the marriage by sexual intercourse and this was not know by the other party; or
  • The marriage is prohibited by law.

Even in cases where the court cannot grant a legal annulment, the parties may be able to pursue an annulment through their church in addition to the divorce.

How long do I need to be a resident of Wisconsin before filing for divorce?

A divorce can be filed at any time when the residence requirements are met and the moving party can state under oath that the marriage is irretrievably broken.

How long does a divorce case take in Wisconsin?

The length of the case depends on many factors, most significantly the type and number of contested issues and the court’s calendar.  By law, the parties have to wait 120 days after filing for the judgment to be entered.

While this is the minimum, it is unusual and only happens in cases where parties enter a complete agreement on all issues quickly.

Do I have to go to court for a divorce in Wisconsin?

The parties are ordered to appear, at a minimum, for the final hearing. There may also be temporary order hearings or other hearings or conferences where your appearance is necessary, depending on the facts of your case.

If you fail to appear at the final hearing, the court can proceed without you, which means they can also proceed without your input as to what the final order should be, and you would be in default.

If attempts to serve my spouse do not work, what is my next step?

If your process server has been unable to serve your spouse, you may be able to publish notice in a legal newspaper. The requirements of exactly how and what to publish are specific to each county and must be followed closely.

You should also watch the time frame that you have to serve, as you may need to request an extension or risk your case getting dismissed.

At what point during the divorce process can a spouse remarry?

In Wisconsin, a party is not allowed to remarry within six months of getting a divorce. Any marriage within six months will be void.

Can you date while separated in Wisconsin?

As to dating, there is no law about when this can begin. However, before a new significant relationship begins, it is important to consider how dating may affect certain orders, such as placement of the children or maintenance.

What if my spouse does not want the divorce?

If one spouse wants to proceed with the divorce, the court will proceed. Both parties do not need to agree for the court to find that the marriage is irretrievably broken.

What happens in a contested divorce in Wisconsin?

In a contested divorce, a judge will take into account the requests of both parties involved and make decisions on property, child custody, support, and other issues. Contested divorces are more lengthy than an uncontested divorce given the disagreements involved.

Do issues like child support, child custody, alimony, and property have to be decided before finalizing a divorce in WI?

The divorce is granted when the parties have reached an agreement on all issues or after a hearing and the court decides the contested issues, so all of the issues are resolved at one time.

In very rare instances, if trials last multiple days over a span of time, the court may grant the divorce following the testimony of both parties although the final order or decision on a complicated contested issue may not be completed yet.

How long do I have to live in Wisconsin to obtain a divorce?

At least one of the parties must be a resident of the state for 6 months prior to filing the action.

After I file for divorce, do I have to continue to live in Wisconsin?

No. The law does not have any residency requirements following the commencement of the action. However, the law does limit how far a party can move with minor children if the court has granted periods of placement to more than one parent.

What if I am in the military and out of state?

You would still meet the residency requirements based on where you are a legal resident.

Additionally, only one of the parties must meet the requirements. The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act provides additional protections to make sure that you have notice and the opportunity to respond.

How do you file for divorce in Wisconsin?

A divorce commences with filing a petition requesting the divorce. Unless both parties sign the petition, a summons is also needed to notify the other party of the lawsuit. The social security numbers of the parties and any children are filed in a confidential addendum.

Where is a divorce complaint filed in WI?

The petition for divorce is filed with the clerk of court in the county in which you have been a resident for at least 30 days. The clerk will also require a filing fee, which varies based on the county.

How do I serve the divorce complaint on my spouse in WI?

The petition is required to be served on the other party. This can be accomplished by having your spouse sign an admission of service, or by have a process server personally serve him or her. The process server may be any adult not related to the action. In some counties, the sheriff will serve the other party upon request.

The time a divorce takes varies based on the case, the contested issues, and the court’s calendar. At a minimum, the law requires parties to wait 120 days after the other party is served. Cases can last much longer if issues are contested, significant

How is a divorce in Wisconsin granted?

The divorce is granted at a hearing. The parties either reach an agreement or the court will decide the contested issues and then grant the divorce. The judge will sign a written judgment after the divorce is granted orally.

This judgment incorporates the parties’ agreement and any orders issued by the judge. If one party does not appear at the hearing, the court may proceed without that party after making findings that the party had appropriate notice of the hearing.

What typically happens if I go to a Wisconsin court to obtain my divorce myself?

The judge’s clerk will look to make sure all of the required documents are filed appropriately and see if you have an agreement or if issues are contested.

Assuming you have an agreement, the judge will likely review it and ask each of the parties questions both about themselves and about whether the terms of the agreement are appropriate. The court will the grant the divorce and give the parties instructions.

How do I prove fault for divorce in Wisconsin?

It is not necessary to prove fault for a divorce is Wisconsin.

At any time can a parent change a minor child’s last name during a divorce in Wisconsin without the other parent’s permission?

No. In order to legally change a person’s name, a case must be brought in court.  Additionally, any change for a minor is a custody decision that must be agreed to if the court has ordered joint custody.

Does Wisconsin have common law marriage?

No. Wisconsin does not recognize common law marriages. But civil claims can arise from living together. If unmarried cohabitants engage in a joint venture to accumulate assets, one party may be entitled to relief through unjust enrichment and partition at the conclusion of the relationship where one party attempts to retain an unreasonable amount of the property.

It is inequitable for one party to retain an unfair amount of the property that both parties acquired together.

Frank Murphy

Edited By Frank Murphy

Chief Compliance Officer
Frank Murphy

Frank Murphy is the Chief Compliance Officer and an Executive Partner at Cordell & Cordell. His responsibilities include oversight of the Firm’s compliance with Legal and Ethical obligations as well as contributing to the day-to-day operations of the Firm as an Executive Partner.

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