One of the most difficult aspects of a divorce involving children is navigating the complexity of requiring two parents who no longer get along but are required to make decisions about their children together. While courts want both parents to be as involved as possible in their child’s life, as that is usually in the best interest of the child, they also want to ensure that the parents’ disagreements over issues don’t interfere with the child’s future or prevent important decisions from being made. In order to avoid this problem, courts will sometimes grant one parent more authority or control than the other in order to allow decisions to be made in an expeditious fashion.
In a recent Wisconsin divorce case, the court dealt with this kind of an issue in reviewing a divorce appeal. In In Re Marriage of Robert Corey Burgraff v. Amanda June Burgraff, the court reviewed a divorce decision for one Wisconsin family. They were married in 2012 and had one child. Less than two years after getting married, the wife decided she wanted to end the marriage and moved from Wisconsin to Kentucky. She stayed in Kentucky while her husband stayed in Wisconsin. In January 2015, the husband filed for divorce. The lower court decided to award joint custody to the two parties, with the child to live with the husband during the school year and then with the wife during the summers because the child would begin kindergarten in Wisconsin the next year. Additionally, the court awarded the parents joint legal custody over their child’s education, but decided that the husband would have impasse authority over educational decisions, which meant that if the two parents could not decide about educational opportunities or decision, the husband had the right to the final say. After this ruling was finalized, the wife appealed.
On appeal, the wife argued that awarding the husband impasse authority as to educational decisions was tantamount to awarding him sole legal custody over their child as to educational issues and, under Wisconsin law, in order to do so, the court had to make specific findings to this effect, which it did not actually do. Thus, the wife argued that the court’s ruling was improper.
The court of appeals disagreed. It noted that under Wisconsin statutes, divorce courts may award joint legal custody, but give one party the sole power to make certain decisions, so long as the two parents retain equal rights and responsibilities as to other decisions. Here, the lower court gave the husband impasse authority solely as it related to educational decisions. It did not give him legal authority over other aspects of their child’s life, such as medical decisions, and allowed the wife to continue to weigh in on those issues with equal weight. Moreover, the court of appeals also noted that the lower court’s decision was supported by the weight of the evidence in the record. Specifically, the child was to live with the husband during the school year and it therefore made sense that he would be the ultimate decisions maker on educational issues since, should they arise, he would be the one likely to be dealing with them. In fact, testimony had been presented by experts at trial suggesting that it was in the child’s best interest for the husband to be the primary decisions maker on educational issues.
This case clarifies an important aspect of joint legal custody. It does not mean that parents must be equal decision makers on absolutely every issue. Rather, where it would make sense for one parent to take the lead on a certain aspect of a child’s life, and help to avoid conflict or delay for the child, a court may award a parent with primary legal responsibility on certain issues, while reserving equal decision making on other aspects of the child’s life. At Reddin & Singer, LLP, our experienced Milwaukee child custody lawyers frequently parents on physical and legal custody issues, including how to best work together in the interest of your child. To find out more about how proceedings to terminate parental rights work, do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP online or give us a call at 414-271-6400.