Family / Paternity

What's the difference between legal separation, annulment, and divorce?

Legal Separation: A legal proceeding that separates the parties' property and finances, and makes custody and placement orders regarding children, but continues their marriage. Legal separation is an alternative for people who wish to avoid divorce for religious or other reasons.


Annulment: Dissolves a marriage that was invalid from the beginning. A marriage may qualify for annulment only if it satisfies very limited statutory circumstances. See Wis. Stat. §767.03.


Divorce: A legal proceeding to dissolve an irretrievably broken marriage.


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What if I don't want a divorce? Is there anything I can do to stop it?

The only basis for divorce in Wisconsin is that the marriage is "irretrievably broken." This means the husband and wife can find no way to work out their differences. A judge usually will find a marriage irretrievably broken even if only one spouse wants a divorce.


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How do I know what county to file for divorce in? Is it where I got married?

Generally, you file for divorce in the county in which you are a legal resident. To file for a divorce in MilwaukeeCounty, one party must have lived in the State of Wisconsin for six months prior to the time the divorce is filed and in MilwaukeeCounty for at least thirty days before filing for divorce.


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How long does it take to get a divorce?

Unless the court makes an exception for an emergency, which is very rare, at least four months (120 days) must pass between the serving of the initial papers (or filing of the joint petition) and the final hearing. Most divorces take longer than four months. Several factors affect the length of the process, including the complexity of the case, the ability of the spouses to agree on the issues, and the amount of other business before the trial court.


A divorce isn't effective until the final hearing. Even then, a "Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Judgment" form must be filed with the court within two months of the final hearing or the case can be dismissed. Once the divorce is final, both parties must wait at least six months before re-marrying anywhere.


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How do I change a legal separation into a divorce?

After one year, either spouse can seek to have a legal separation converted into a divorce without the other spouse's consent. Spouses who reconcile after a legal separation may apply to have the separation revoked.


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What if I'm pregnant and going through a divorce?

Your husband is legally presumed to be the father of your child. You must notify the Family Court Commissioner or judge of your pregnancy so that a lawyer can be appointed to represent the child's best interests. That lawyer, the guardian ad litem, must recommend to the judge whether your husband or another person is the father of your child, before you can be divorced. This often involves waiting until the child is born, when genetic testing can be performed.


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Do I need a lawyer in order to file for divorce?

There is no requirement that you must hire an attorney in order to file for divorce. Many people handle their own divorce, though lawyers have the training and experience to best present your case.


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We don't have any property or children, do we still need to fill out the Marital Settlement Agreement?

Yes. Even if the parties have no property to divide, an MSA must be filed. The Marital Settlement Agreement form available in the divorce packet available for sale in the Legal Resource Center, room 307A of the Milwaukee County Courthouse or can be downloaded from the State’s website___________________.  As long as both parties sign the form and agree on the terms, the court will usually accept their agreement.


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When is my divorce final?

Your divorce is final on the date of the divorce hearing. Unless the court makes an exception for an emergency, at least four months (120 days) must pass between the serving of the initial papers (or filing of the joint petition) and the final divorce hearing. Most divorces take longer than four months. You are not free to marry, in Wisconsin or another State, for six months after the divorce is final. (Information regarding when your divorce is final can be found on the CCAP system) A "Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Judgment" form must be filed with the court within two months of the final hearing. If this document is not received, the action can be dismissed.


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How can I tell if my spouse has filed a divorce action against me?

Check to see if a divorce action has been filed on the Internet at, or call (608) 266-4311.


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Where do I get a copy of my divorce judgment or certificate?

Requests for copies may be made in person in room G-9 of the Milwaukee County Courthouse, or by mail. No telephone or fax requests are taken. There is a charge of $1.25 per page for copies. The divorce certificate can be obtained from the State of Wisconsin Office of Vital Records, PO Box 309, 1 W. Wilson Street, Madison, WI 53701-0309 or by calling (608) 266-1371. 


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How do I change my name after I'm divorced? Do I have to go to court?

You usually do not need to go through a separate name change court proceeding in order to change certain documents if necessary language regarding use of maiden name is contained in the divorce judgment. Most agencies that hold documents that you need to change, such as the DMV or Social Security Agency, have internal forms for you to fill out. Some may require a certified copy of your divorce judgment or certificate (available from the RecordCenter in Room G-9 of the Milwaukee County Courthouse). The Social Security Agency requires a certified copy of the divorce judgment showing the judge's signature, not the judge's stamped signature. Contact the individual agencie to see what they require.


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Can I get child support before a divorce is final?

The judge or court commissioner may issue temporary orders that protect your rights during the divorce process. For example, temporary orders may determine child custody and physical placement, who lives in the family home, payment of maintenance and child support, or payment of debts.


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Can I get a divorce if I don't know where my spouse is?

Yes, but you have to show the court that you made reasonable and diligent efforts to locate your spouse. You also must publish a notice in a local newspaper in an attempt to inform your spouse that you have started a divorce.


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