In Wisconsin, as in many other states, you can file for either a divorce or a legal separation if you believe the marriage relationship is broken. People who choose a legal separation instead of a divorce may have religious reasons for doing so, or they may want to keep the other spouse on a health insurance plan, an option that would not be available if they divorced. The process for filing a legal separation is similar to filing for divorce, as is the cost. The judge's order will be similar to a divorce decree as well, since it will provide for custody, visitation, alimony, child support, property division and health insurance coverage. The difference is that a divorce ends the marriage while a legal separation does not. The process can be complex and time-consuming, so rely on the aid of an online legal service if you need assistance.
Download a copy of "Basic Guide to Divorce/Legal Separation" from the Wisconsin state courts website and read it carefully to familiarize yourself with the process.
Decide where to file for legal separation. At least party to the separation must have lived in a Wisconsin county for at least the past 30 days. If, for example, you have lived in Milwaukee County for at least 30 days and your spouse has lived at least that long in Dane County, you may file in either place.
Discuss the legal separation with your spouse. If you both want the separation and can agree on how to handle the property division, custody, visitation, child support, alimony and other issues, your job will be much easier than if the two of you disagree on everything.
Decide who will file the petition, which is the document that starts the case. If you want a separation but your spouse does not, you will file the petition separately. If your spouse agrees to the separation, you may file jointly and both of you will sign the petition.
Complete the Forms
Obtain the forms you need from the Wisconsin Court System website. The website has a "family law forms assistant" feature that asks you a series of questions about yourself and your case. Based on your answers, it selects the correct forms and fills them out for you.
Choose the name of your county of residence from the dropdown box. Some counties have slightly different rules and filing fees, so be sure to make the right selection.
Answer "yes" or "no" questions about whether you are filing jointly or separately, have children 17 or younger, have children 18 or older, need a temporary orders hearing, cannot pay the filing fee, and whether you want to print out blank forms or continue answering questions online. Be prepared to give a reason for choosing legal separation instead of divorce. Answer each question presented on the screen. Read the explanation on the right side of the screen if you are not sure how to answer. Continue until you reach the end of the online interview. If you are not sure of some of the answers and are using your own computer rather than a public one, you can save your answers and return later to finish.
Print the completed forms out on any type of printer, either inkjet or laser. Make sure that the entire form is printed legibly.
Review the printed forms carefully to ensure that the information is correct and that every question has been answered. If you find mistakes, correct them on the computer and reprint. If the mistakes are minor, such as a misspelled name or place, you may cross out the error, write the correct spelling next to it or above it, and initial it.
Sign the completed Joint Petition and the Confidential Petition Addendum. Both spouses need to sign the documents.
Take the original documents to the Clerk of Courts at your county's courthouse. Some counties, including Milwaukee County, require you to bring five copies of the petition while other counties require three copies. You will not need extra copies of the Confidential Petition Addendum.
Pay the filing fee to the Clerk. Fees vary slightly according to the county in which you are filing as well as whether or not there are minor children or a request for spousal support. Most counties accept checks, cash, money orders, debit cards or credit cards.
Follow the clerk's instructions if he tells you to take a copy of the Petition to the Family Court Commissioner and, if you receive public assistance, to the Child Support Agency. Keep one copy for yourself and give one to your spouse. Each copy should have the date and time of filing stamped on it by the clerk.
Complete a Summons form as well as a Confidential Petition Addendum form. The family law forms assistant system will choose all of these forms for you and fill them out.
Sign the documents according to the instructions on the form. If you need a document notarized, do not sign it until the notary is ready for you to do so.
Bring the originals and copies to the Clerk of Courts and pay the filing fee. If required, deliver copies to the Child Support Agency and to the Family Court Commissioner. Keep a copy for yourself.
Arrange for a process-server or other person over the age of 18 to give a copy of the documents to your spouse and complete an affidavit stating that the service was completed. You may not perform this step yourself.
If you are legally separated, you are still married and cannot marry anyone else. If you later decide to divorce, you must wait six months after the date of divorce to remarry.
Handling a legal separation can be complex so consider hiring a lawyer to assist you, especially if you have children under the age of 17. Other sources of help include online document preparation services, legal clinics and self-help law centers. Many counties in Wisconsin offer limited legal assistance to people representing themselves in court.
If you have difficulties reaching an agreement on any issues before the final hearing, the court will send you and your spouse to a mediator, a neutral third party, who can help you talk things through.
- Wisconsin State Law Library: Divorce
- Brazil Thelen & Benske: Legal Separation
- Wisconsin Legislative Documents: Actions Affecting the Family
- Wisconsin Court System: Family Law Forms Assistant
- Dane County Clerk of Courts: Paying Court Costs, Fines and Other Fees
- Wisconsin State Courts: Basic Guide to Divorce/Legal Separation
Marcy Brinkley has been writing professionally since 2007. Her work has appeared in "Chicken Soup for the Soul," "Texas Health Law Reporter" and the "State Bar of Texas Health Law Section Report." Her degrees include a Bachelor of Science in Nursing; a Master of Business Administration; and a Doctor of Jurisprudence.