Once a judgment has been entered for divorce-related issues such as child custody, child support or spousal maintenance, the general assumption is that its terms will be permanent. However, in certain limited circumstances, it is possible to modify a divorce agreement in Wisconsin even after judgment has been entered in the case.
Changing a child custody or visitation plan
If both parents agree to the changes, the process of modifying an order for child custody or placement (visitation) in Wisconsin is relatively straightforward and does not generally require the parents to return to court. Instead, they can simply file the appropriate documentation with the court in order to have the agreed-upon changes incorporated into the divorce order.
When the parents do not agree, however, changing an order for child custody or placement can be much more complicated and will usually require the parents to participate in mediation and/or go before a judge. Under Wisconsin law, the specific requirements for modifying child custody or visitation vary depending on the amount of time that has passed since the original order.
If less than two years have passed since the original judgment was entered, the parent seeking modification must prove that the current child custody or visitation arrangement is harmful to the child, either physically or emotionally, and that it would be in the child's best interest to modify the arrangement.
If more than two years have passed since the original judgment was entered, a parent who wishes to modify an order for child custody or placement must show that there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the last order was entered and that the proposed modification would be in the child's best interest. Examples of substantial changes in circumstances that may justify a modification include a major illness, relocation or loss of employment.
Modifying child support or spousal support
If an existing divorce order requires one ex-spouse to pay child support, maintenance or family support to the other, either party may request a modification of those payments by presenting evidence of a substantial change in financial circumstances. For example, the paying spouse may seek to reduce the payments if he or she has experienced job loss or a significant reduction in wages. Conversely, the recipient spouse may seek to increase the payments if the payor has had a substantial increase in income since the original judgment was entered.
Unlike orders for child support or spousal maintenance, however, Wisconsin law does not generally allow for the modification of property settlement agreements after a divorce order has been entered except in very limited circumstances such as fraud or a failure to disclose information.
Careful planning can reduce the need for changes
Because post-judgment modification of a divorce order can add considerable cost, time and uncertainty to divorce, it is best to make every effort to ensure that the terms of the initial settlement are agreeable and sustainable in the long term for both spouses. However, even the most carefully planned divorce agreement cannot account for every possible contingency, and sometimes it is necessary to make changes after the fact. In either case, it is always wise to get help from a knowledgeable family law attorney when seeking to create or modify a divorce agreement in Wisconsin.