Does Wisconsin allow me to divorce without going to court?
- Since the start of the pandemic, Wisconsin divorce courts have had to adapt their practices to respond to changing directives and conditions. At the outset, Wisconsin circuit courts were closed, and divorce hearings were postponed. When the courts re-opened, routine cases were conducted via video conferencing. Since then, some Wisconsin courts have re-opened for in-person divorce hearings while others continue to operate via video or teleconference. If you have a pending divorce in the metropolitan Milwaukee area, you will want to know: Does Wisconsin allow me to divorce without going to court?
- On May 22, 2020, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered each municipal and circuit court to prepare an operational plan for the phased resumption of in-person hearings and jury trials. According to the order, the plans were also required to include information regarding case prioritization and court safety measures.
- On May 21, 2021, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an order stating that it no longer “requires that personal masking, social distancing, and sanitizing court facilities be part of any plan for circuit court and municipal court proceedings approved by the chief judge of the applicable judicial district.” The court decreed that “circuit courts and municipal courts, with the approval of the applicable chief judge, shall make county-wide decisions about what is in the best interest of circuit court and municipal court operations, respectively.” The order also stated that the circuit and municipal courts’ decisions would include “whether or not to continue to require masking, social distancing, and sanitizing court facilities on a county-by-county basis.” With the issuance of this order, each county’s court system was given the autonomy to determine how it would operate with respect to COVID-19-related protocols and precautions.
Metro Milwaukee Family Courts
- The Milwaukee County circuit court operational plan includes four phases of re-opening and various safety protocols. The most recent phase of the plan states that the district's policy is to continue using video and audio conferencing to allow people to access hearings when their presence is not necessary, requested, or needed. The plan also designates certain courtrooms for in-person hearing use and requires masking inside all court buildings.
- Following the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s May 21, 2021 order, the judicial district opted to continue adhering to its operational plan's COVID-19 health and safety protocols. As of September 2021, Milwaukee County circuit courts operate under an amended version of its operational plan that includes limited courtroom use, social distancing, and masking. Additionally, in-person hearing participation remains limited to necessary circumstances.
- On May 25, 2021, Chief Judge for the Second Administrative District signed an order rescinding all prior Racine County Circuit Court COVID-19 operational plans that had been in place. Since that time, Racine County Circuit Courts offices have been open to the public.
- Earlier this year, Waukesha County circuit courts had special orders in place concerning the scheduling of family law proceedings and were operating according to the mandated operational plan. However, following the Supreme Court’s May 2021 order, Waukesha County circuit court judges vacated the special orders. Additionally, effective May 24, 2021, the chief judge ordered that the COVID in-person and jury resumption plans for Waukesha County be rescinded. The court’s website states that it is open for family law cases. However, the website also provides instructions for remote participation in court.
- Before the pandemic, parties could not get divorced in Wisconsin without attending court. However, at present, Milwaukee area courts are allowing parties represented by counsel to get divorced by affidavit without attending a final hearing.
- As the Supreme Court's order indicated, requiring or permitting remote hearings is within each county court system's discretion. That being said, even if in-person hearings are allowed, how each county's circuit courts will hear cases will ultimately be up to the presiding judge. Further, the judge may make changes in response to newly presented health and safety concerns.
- Although the courts may vary regarding their in-person hearing schedules and protocols, all counties allow in-person settings for restraining order hearings. Therefore, if your case involves domestic violence, and you need to get a restraining order in place for your safety, a hearing on the matter can be set before the court.
- With the constant changes presented by COVID-19, it’s not yet certain when or if all of the circuit courts will resume in-person settings. Presently, some courts are requiring parties to appear by Zoom and allowing divorce by affidavit. At the same time, others have mandated that both sides appear in person. The best way to get an accurate idea of what to expect during your case is by consulting with an experienced Milwaukee area divorce attorney. Your counsel will be familiar with the different court practices and can help you navigate your case.
Consult with an Experienced Wisconsin Family Law Attorney
- Going through a divorce can be a confusing and challenging process under ordinary conditions. However, having to go through a case while dealing with the changes imposed by COVID-19 has the potential to be overwhelming. An experienced Wisconsin family law attorney can help provide you with the information and advice you need to make informed decisions during your case. Wisconsin Attorney and Mediator Karyn Youso of First Look Family Law has extensive experience assisting clients during and after divorce and can help you evaluate your case, connect with helpful resources, and determine your next steps. Please get in touch with us to schedule a consultation.