Articles Posted in Child Custody

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walletIn Milwaukee divorce cases involving children, guardian ad litems (GALs) are frequently appointed to help represent the best interests of the child before the court. Ex-spouses may request the appointment of a GAL, or a court may require a GAL to be appointed. In either circumstance, the GAL will have fees for his or her time that must be paid by the parties involved in the divorce. How those fees are paid can be an issue of contention, especially when they rack up over time. In a recent case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, one spouse attempted to object to having to pay his share of GAL fees.

In Marriage of Arlene Gregerson v. Christopher Gregerson, Arlene and Christopher filed for divorce and sought custody over their two minor children. Since custody was contested, the court appointed a GAL to participate in the proceedings. After some negotiation, Arlene and Christopher reached a marital settlement agreement, which was incorporated into the court’s order of divorce. As part of the settlement agreement, Christopher and Arlene agreed to split the GAL fees 50/50. At the time, they did not know the full extent of what those fees would be. After the proceedings were completed, the GAL submitted a request for payment of her fees. Christopher provided the court with a written objection to the fee petition, but his objection was overruled, and the court approved the payment of the fees. Christopher appealed, arguing that he was entitled to a hearing to consider the objections that he had to the fee petition and that the court failed to credit him the $400 deposit he made toward the payment of the GAL’s fees.

In Wisconsin, county court rules govern the handling of disputes over payment of GAL fees. In St. Croix County, where Arlene and Christopher were located, the county court rules provide that any party who has a dispute with the payment of GAL fees should raise the issue with the judge or commissioner for it to be reviewed. Accordingly, Christopher filed his written objection to the fee petition and also requested that a hearing be scheduled to address his objection. The court reviewed his written objection and determined that it could resolve the issue on the basis of the written submissions. It therefore declined to conduct a hearing and granted the fee petition. On appeal, Christopher argued that the “review” of his petition required more than simply reviewing the documents, and it required that a hearing be scheduled. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals disagreed. It found that the rules gave the court the discretion to determine how to handle any objections to the payment of GAL fees and that if the court deemed a review through the documents sufficient, this satisfied the requirements of the rule. Since the rule did not explicitly require a hearing, the court did not err in deciding not to grant one.

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cell phoneIn Wisconsin, the procedural steps that must be completed before a parent’s rights can be terminated are extensive. Parents at risk of having their rights terminated must be offered substantial opportunities to rectify their behavior and comply with necessary steps toward reunification. But what if the compliance required is exceptionally difficult, or even impossible? A recent Wisconsin child custody case takes a look at such an argument by a parent who lost parental rights.

In In Re The Termination of Parental Rights to M.A.B. v. T.M.T.M.’s parental rights were terminated after a jury found that she did not substantially comply with the requirements imposed on her by the Monroe County Department of Human Services, and she had abandoned her children. In January 2015, T.M.’s children were removed from her home and placed in foster care, based on concerns about T.M.’s mental health. In order to have visits with her children, T.M. was required to undertake certain conditions, including submitting to drug testing, visiting with a mental health provider, contacting her social worker to inquire about her children, contacting her children as allowed by her social worker, and acknowledging important events like her children’s birthdays. Almost a year later, Monroe County moved to terminate T.M.’s parental rights on the basis of abandonment after she failed to comply with these conditions.

According to T.M.’s social worker, Gina Phelps, Ms. Phelps had attempted to contact T.M. on a variety of occasions to inform her of these conditions and discuss how to comply with them. After a hostile phone call with T.M., Ms. Phelps began to send letters to T.M. to keep her updated on these conditions and attempt to move forward. Ms. Phelps never heard from T.M. by mail or phone call, and T.M. never contacted her to inquire about her children. Ms. Phelps also testified that T.M. never showed up to appointments with her mental health providers and never contacted her children at their foster home, despite the fact that the foster parents had given her a cell phone to do so.

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courtroomOne of the fundamental tenets of the legal system is that you must show up to assert your legal rights if you want to have those rights enforced. Parties to a legal dispute cannot simply refuse to take part in legal proceedings and expect to have their position upheld, or even considered, by the court. Indeed, when an individual does not show up or respond to a legal proceeding or complaint, a court may enter a default judgment against the person. This means that the opposing party wins not necessarily on the merits of their argument but simply by default, since the other party didn’t show up. In a recent case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, this type of default judgment had significant consequences for a father seeking to keep his parental rights.

In In Re The Termination of Parental Rights to A.P. and J.P., proceedings were initiated against K.P., the father of A.P. and J.P., after he failed to abide by state orders obligating him to maintain contact with his children. K.P. was incarcerated at the time that A.P. and J.P. were removed from their mother, and he did not initially have regular contact with them while in jail. In July 2014, temporary custody of J.P. and A.P. was awarded to the Milwaukee Bureau of Child Welfare, and, in order to prevent the termination of his parental rights, K.P. was instructed to maintain monthly written contact with his children from jail. K.P. failed to do so. In October 2015, a petition to terminate K.P.’s parental rights was filed, stating that K.P. had abandoned his children. K.P. was ordered to show up for the termination proceedings and was released from custody in order to do so. K.P. was appointed counsel, who attended the first hearing, but K.P. did not show up. His counsel did not know where he was. The court went ahead and ordered the remaining hearing and trial dates and warned K.P.’s counsel that if K.P. did not appear, a default judgment could be entered against him. While K.P. later attended the two pretrial hearings, he did not show up on the day of the jury trial, despite repeated attempts by the court to reach him. A default judgment was entered against him, and his rights were terminated. K.P. appealed.

On appeal, K.P. argued that his behavior was not so egregious as to justify a default judgment because he had attended the prior hearings, and he had telephoned his counsel on the day of the trial to say that he would be late. Under Wisconsin law, however, a trial court’s determination of a default judgment may be overturned only if the trial court did not follow the law or had no reasonable basis for the default judgment. Here, the Court of Appeals noted that K.P. had received multiple warnings regarding the possibility of default findings if he did not appear, and he had acknowledged these warnings. Moreover, although he initially telephoned his counsel on the morning of the trial to let him know that he would be a few minutes late, his counsel and the court were unable to reach him for the next two hours, even after delaying the trial in an attempt to allow K.P. to attend. Under these circumstances, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court was not out of line in determining that egregious conduct had occurred, and there was a reasonable basis for the decision. Moreover, the Court of Appeals noted that K.P. had never made any significant attempts to contact or support his children and had not been a consistent presence in their lives.

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sonIn 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.

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money-wallet-1535232-1280x960-300x225When a couple divorces and reaches an agreement on issues such as child support and spousal maintenance, the terms of that agreement are considered final. They can only be changed through a petition to the court arguing that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that warrants a change in financial arrangements. What constitutes a substantial change in circumstances is largely up to the discretion of the court considering the case, and many different factors may be considered. A recent Wisconsin case looks at whether changes in income by one or both parties can justify a change in child support amounts.

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courtroom-1-1236725-1278x855-3-300x201When dealing with family law matters, it can be difficult to ascertain the true interests of the parties and all those affected, without conducting an evidentiary hearing. While briefs and motions can be carefully crafted in order to present the story from a party’s particular perspective, hearings are often necessary to understand the full details of a situation and the true impact that any changes to a custody order, or maintenance plan, are likely to have on those involved. At the same time, courts are often constrained by time and resources from conducting hearings on every occasion, and may opt instead to hold hearings only in those cases where they are most necessary. A recent case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals looks at whether courts are required to hold hearings in some circumstances and whether that is a basis for appeal.

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familyChild custody and placement can be one of the most contentious aspects of any divorce. Parents feel strongly about spending time with their kids and having a long-lasting and healthy relationship with them. Splitting time between both spouses can make that difficult and can lead to anger and resentment between ex-spouses. In a recent case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, the court considered what to do when one spouse asks to modify the child custody arrangement to which she previously agreed.

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babyIn Wisconsin, when a parent is unwilling or unfit to take care of his or her child, the parental rights of the individual may be terminated through special proceedings. The termination of parental rights is governed by statute and is taken very seriously, since it can have a huge impact on both the life of the child and the life of the parents. A recent case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals considers the question of what to do when lower courts deviate from termination of parental rights procedures.

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