Terese J. Singer

Wisconsin Court Considers Prior Domestic Violence in Deciding Custody Placement

In Wisconsin, courts may consider a wide range of factors when determining custody between two divorcing parents. Among these factors, Wisconsin courts are statutorily required to consider evidence of past domestic abuse. Wisconsin’s statutes do not require that a past history of abuse be dispositive, but it must be one of the factors that a court considers. A recent case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals illustrates how this factor may be weighed against others in evaluating custody arrangements.

In In re Marriage of Man H. Watson and Julie Watson, a Wisconsin circuit court addressed the divorce of a husband and wife. The couple were married with two small children. The husband was employed as an electrical engineer in the Navy Reserve and was often away from home for periods of time while serving on active duty. During one of his trips away, the wife moved away from Wisconsin with their children to her parents’ home in Mississippi. When the husband returned and realized they had left, he filed for divorce. The circuit court ultimately awarded the two parents joint legal custody but gave the wife primary physical custody. Their children lived with her but spent six weeks of the summer with the husband, as well as alternating holidays. The husband appealed this custody determination, arguing that he should have been given greater time with his children and that he was unfairly penalized for prior domestic abuse.

The court of appeals noted that Wisconsin courts must consider a variety of factors when making custody determinations. These include the wishes of the child, the wishes of the parent, the amount and quality of time that each parent spent with the child in the past, the child’s adjustment to any changes in living arrangements, and the child’s age. Trial courts are given significant discretion in weighing these factors because of their observations of the individuals and the evidence at issue. In addition to these factors, as previously mentioned, Wisconsin courts must consider prior domestic abuse because it affects safety considerations for children. Here, the husband argued that the court gave this factor too much weight, especially in light of the fact that the wife had acknowledged that she thought the husband was a good father.

The appeals court disagreed. It noted that the lower court was simply doing the job it was statutorily required to do in considering the past domestic violence. It further pointed to the fact that the lower court had not denied the husband custody on the basis of his prior history, and it had determined that his behavior did not rise to a level at which it would be unsafe for the children to live with him. Instead, since the children could not live with both parents on an equal basis (given the distance between the two of them), the court instead weighed all of the factors and determined that the wife was a better fit for primary custody. Accordingly, the court of appeals denied the husband’s appeal on this basis.

If you have previously been accused of domestic abuse or charged with domestic abuse, this is a factor that will be considered when evaluating custody arrangements during a divorce. However, it does not automatically mean that you will be denied custody of your children. In many cases, if you are upfront and truthful, and you take responsibility for the past actions that have occurred and can explain how your behavior has changed, courts may find that some form of a joint custody arrangement is still the best approach. At Reddin & Singer, LLP, our knowledgeable Milwaukee child custody lawyers can help you evaluate the potential impact of any prior domestic violence allegations on your custody request. We understand that mistakes happen and that people can learn and change. When representing you, we will always do our best to advocate on your behalf in the courtroom. To find out more about how to fight for your custody rights, do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP online or give us a call at 414-271-6400.

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