Can a Wisconsin Judge Order Marriage Counseling Before Granting a Divorce?

By Tom Streissguth

The procedures for divorce in Wisconsin are similar to those of other states. One of the spouses must file an initial petition; the couple must also draw up a marital settlement agreement and attend a public hearing. State law allows only for "irretrievable breakdown" of the marriage as valid grounds for divorce. In the interest of avoiding divorce, if possible, Wisconsin also permits the presiding judge to recommend or order marriage counseling.

Valid Grounds and Residency

The laws of Wisconsin permit divorce on the grounds of the marriage being "irretrievably broken," as one or both parties attest. In effect, this is a "no-fault" divorce in which the party petitioning for divorce does not have to prove a specific cause. If the spouses have lived apart for at least 12 months, the court may find the marriage "irretrievably broken" by reason of separation alone. State law requires that at least one spouse be a resident of Wisconsin for at least six months, and a resident of the county in which the divorce is filed for at least 30 days prior to filing.

Hearings and Orders

Wisconsin requires a four-month "cooling-off" period after the filing of a divorce petition. At the hearing that follows, the spouses state their intention to seek a permanent legal separation and have their marital settlement reviewed by a judge. Wisconsin law permits the judge to find a reasonable chance of reconciliation and, on that basis, recommend (or order) marriage counseling for the couple seeking a divorce. The judge may adjourn the hearing and reschedule it not more than 60 days later. The judge may also order counseling if either party files a motion requesting it.

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The court will provide a list of private marriage counseling services in the surrounding region. These counselors are court-approved and set their own terms for marriage therapy, including the frequency and length of visits. If one or both spouses refuse to comply with a court order for counseling, the court can either find them in contempt or proceed with the divorce procedures. If a judge has recommended rather than ordered the counseling, failure to attend will not result in any sanctions.


If the couple returns to court and states under oath that the marriage remains irretrievably broken, the divorce will proceed. The court will review the marital settlement agreement, hear argument from both sides on any contested terms of the settlement, and finally grant the divorce. If children are involved, the court may set the amount of child support (for which Wisconsin law provides guidelines) as well as the rules for custody and visitation. If the divorce is amicable and the spouses agree to the terms, the entire process will take on average five or six months. If the terms of the divorce are contested, it can take up to 14 months before the trial is held.

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