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Wisconsin Court Makes Clear that Parties Must Be Responsive and Responsible in Divorce Proceedings

Dealing with divorce is never easy. It can be emotionally, mentally, and financially draining. On top of the many practical adjustments and changes to life routines, ex-spouses must deal with the complicated and lengthy nature of divorce proceedings, which can be particularly difficult when a divorce is contentious. While litigants may often wish to ignore what is going on in their legal case and turn away from dealing with tough issues, this kind of an approach can cause significant problems during a divorce. As a recent case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals illustrates, when one spouse chooses not to participate or be cooperative in divorce proceedings, it can lead to sanctions down the road.

In Kastner v. Kastner, J.K. and M.K. decided to divorce after 23 years of marriage. J.K. initially filed the petition for divorce in Wisconsin court but then moved to New Jersey. During initial proceedings, he moved again to New Mexico and then, once more, to California. During this time, M.K. served initial discovery on J.K. in order to find out more about his current employment, salary, living expenses, and assets. J.K. failed to respond to any of these discovery requests. At a status conference set almost a year after the petition for divorce was initially filed, J.K. appeared without an attorney. M.K.’s attorney explained that they had served J.K. with a proposed marital settlement agreement but had heard nothing from him and were unable to obtain any of the necessary information that they needed from him. The court ordered J.K. to provide certain documents and also confirmed that he would make sure to attend his deposition, which was scheduled for shortly after the status conference. Despite assurances from J.K., he continued to refuse to provide required documents and did not show up for his deposition.

In response, M.K. filed for sanctions with the court. Specifically, she asked the court to limit J.K. from providing any objection to her proposed marital settlement agreement, since he had refused to participate in the court proceedings. When J.K. was unable to explain the reason for his failure to attend the deposition or for his unwillingness to provide basic financial information to M.K., the court awarded sanctions against him, denying him an opportunity to object to proposed maintenance and property division arrangements in the divorce. Following a trial, the court accepted M.K.’s proposed arrangement and granted the divorce. J.K. appealed.

On appeal, J.K. argued that the trial court had erred in refusing to consider J.K.’s position on the maintenance and property division arrangements in the marital settlement agreement. J.K. argued that his actions were not sufficiently egregious to warrant such extreme sanctions and that his arguments should have been considered. The Court of Appeals acknowledged that dismissing a party’s objections is a particularly significant sanction that is appropriate only in cases of very egregious conduct. However, it also noted that the determination to award sanctions was soundly within the discretion of the trial court and would be overturned only if there was a clear abuse of discretion. Here, the Court of Appeals noted that J.K. had refused to provide basic financial information to M.K., which inhibited her ability to prepare for trial or get a realistic assessment of how the couple’s assets and financial resources could best be divided. J.K. also failed to attend his own deposition, despite repeatedly assuring the court that he would do so. The Court of Appeals held that the failure to comply with court scheduling and discovery orders constituted very egregious conduct that warranted appropriate sanctions. As a result, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in deciding that it was necessary to sanction J.K. by striking his position on the marital settlement agreement. It affirmed the lower court.

While courts understand that divorce can be difficult, and mistakes may happen, judges will have very little tolerance for parties who refuse to follow the rules and make proceedings unnecessarily difficult for all others involved. If you are considering divorce and are unsure about what you will be required to do in Wisconsin courts, you should discuss your rights and options with an experienced Milwaukee divorce attorney as soon as possible. To speak with a knowledgeable divorce lawyer today, 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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