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  • Inside Track
    November 01, 2017

    Legal Research: Where to Find Family Law Resources

    Helping your client through a divorce, adoption, or other family law issue is no easy task. There are many resources out there to help you make the task easier.

    Carol J. Schmitt

    father daughter hold household

    Nov. 1, 2017 – When most people hear the phrase "family law," the first thought is likely “divorce.” But it is more than that. Family law is marriage, adoption, parental rights, grandparent rights, children, paternity, infertility, and of course, divorce.

    While going through a divorce or other family law procedure is not always easy or pleasant for you or your clients, knowing the resources and tools can help you navigate the road.

    Finding Family Law Statutes in Wisconsin and in the U.S.

    In Wisconsin, the controlling law is found in Wisconsin Statutes chapters 48 and 765 -769, and Wisconsin Administrative Code chapters DCF 1-252.

    Carol Schmitt, Masters of Library & Information Studies U.W.-Madison, is the law librarian and Law Library Manager for Boardman & Clark LLP, Madison.

    For practitioners who are involved in court hearings, the State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE® is a great resource, offering two codebooks, Wisconsin Family Code and Related Statutes and Rules and the Wisconsin Children’s Code and Juvenile Justice Code

    For statute resources outside Wisconsin, a good starting point is the Cornell Law School State Statute tables, which provide links to tables covering adoption, divorce, emancipation of children, and marriage.

    Findlaw's website contains links to state statutes and laws by topic, using a simple drill-down method.

    The American Bar Association’s Family Law Section provides charts for members that summarize family law in 50 states, with topics like custody or support.

    Books for the Family Law Practitioner

    In addition to the statutes and administrative code chapters, there are several books that family law practitioners should consider for themselves and their clients.

    For a fundamental overview, the Wisconsin Court System’s publication, Basic Guide to Divorce/Legal Separation, is extremely helpful for new practitioners and clients – and anyone who is pro se – who need an introduction to the process.

    The ABA’s Family Legal Guide is a series of individual PDF documents that can be downloaded and viewed for free.

    While the entire book is not available online, several chapters of the Wisconsin Child Support Attorney’s Desk Reference from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families are available as PDFs.

    These references from State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE are available in print and online via a subscription to PINNACLE’s Books Unbound®:

    Resources for Clients

    In addition to the Wisconsin Court System’s Basic Guide mentioned above, the ABA’s Family Law Section publishes several family law manuals, most available in print and PDF, aimed at adults and children going through a family law action:

    • My Parents are Splitting Up: A Graphic Novel

    • My Parents are Getting Divorced: A Handbook by and for Kids

    • Your Blended Family: A Guide for Parents and Stepparents

    • Finances Before, During, and After a Divorce: A Client Manual

    Resources for Divorce Alternatives

    Perhaps you are looking for a kinder, gentler way to resolve your client’s divorce or family issues. A collaborative divorce is a formal agreement whereby two clients and two attorneys, as well as a shared team of professionals (financial, mental health, and other areas such as appraisers, investors, etc.), work together to achieve agreements that are in the best of interest of all parties.

    The website Collaborative Family Law Council of Wisconsin provides excellent information on the process. It also contains a directory of members for those currently using or considering the collaborative process.

    Another alternative to the standard divorce is to use mediation, a process involving using a neutral third party to resolve issues. For those practitioners that might be considering becoming a mediator, there are options for training:

    Going to Court: Forms and Rules

    Whether a standard divorce, a collaborative divorce, or mediated divorce, the process will involve the court.

    Like all legal action, family law has its own unique forms. Family court forms for adoption, separation, child custody, support, guardianship, power of attorney for grandparent rights, and more can be viewed and downloaded from the website. Under “Juvenile,” you will find forms relating to Adoption, Indian Child Welfare Act, and Termination of Parental Rights (TPR).

    Wondering what the local court rules are in a particular county? Find them on the State Bar’s website,, under Directories. Additionally, it is not a bad idea to bookmark the Wisconsin State Law Library’s County Legal Resources webpage. This resource is a good starting point for your research.

    Cases, Briefs, and Opinions

    Wisconsin Court System’s Circuit Court Access (CCAP) allows you to view court filings for Wisconsin circuit courts. You can search by party name or case number, or use the advanced search feature to search by case type or attorney (State Bar number), or to find judgments.

    CCAP also provides access to dockets and decisions for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. There you’ll find briefs from July 2009 forward. To find earlier briefs, visit the University of Wisconsin Law Library’s webpage on Wisconsin briefs.

    Finding Case Law – and Keeping Up-to-date

    Fastcase (available free to State Bar members), Westlaw, Lexis, Bloomberg Law, and even Google are great resources for finding case law.

    The subscription services offer more precise searching methods for all 50 states as well as federal district courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. If you’re lucky to have a librarian in your office, he or she is skilled in using the paid subscription services in a cost-efficient and effective manner.

    Get notices of new case decisions from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and Supreme Court by subscribing to the State Bar’s CaseLaw EXPRESS – sent via email on Monday afternoons. Both lawyers and their support staff can receive the emails.

    Many state and federal court websites offer RSS feeds that you can subscribe to. (Note: most RSS feeds seem to work better in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer than in Google Chrome.) Westlaw and Lexis allow users to set up case alerts on cases to be notified of new filings, decisions, etc. via email. Many of the alerts are at no or low cost.

    State Agency Resources

    The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) is the primary state agency that oversees child support, kinship care, guardianship, and adoption assistance. Their website is very user-friendly and provides wonderful resources. There you’ll find guides on a variety of topics, general information on child support, and up-to-date information on child support laws.

    Calculating Child Support

    Find worksheets and calculators for estimating child support on the DCF website:

    • The calculators are divided into one of five types (shared-placement, high-income payer, serial family, split-placement, or combination split-placement/shared-placement cases). These calculators are Microsoft Excel spreadsheets with pre-populated formulas for your use.

    • The worksheets are PDF documents with explanations and forms to calculate support.

    • Two tables allow you to calculate Percent Conversion and Low-income Payer estimation amounts (these tables are links to the Appendix A and Appendix C of Wisconsin Administrative Code Chapter DCF 150).

    • There are also percentage income guidelines and a link to the Child Support Percentage worksheet which is Appendix B of Chapter DCF 150 under the “Guidelines Used for Setting Support” tab.

    Another maintenance calculator, known as the Mac Davis (created by former Waukesha County Judge J. Mac Davis) automatically calculates taxes for income and maintenance. Links to current and former Excel versions of this calculator can be found on the website, which also contains several property settlement programs that may be of interest to family law practitioners.

    Support Pay is a product that allows you or your client to manage child support and shared expenses. You’ll find Support Pay available via limited free access, or for full access via a monthly subscription. There are also links to child support agencies for all 50 states, including Native American child support agencies.

    For military clients who pay alimony or child support and who are called to active duty, it is important that the child support agency be notified. Deployment can affect support payment, support orders, hearings, and appointments – for information, visit the DCF webpage Parents Called Into Active Duty. The Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS), which provides payments services for the U.S. Department of Defense, maintains a webpage with useful information for practitioners on child support and alimony payments.

    Outside Wisconsin: FindLaw has a good overview of state-specific child support information and guidelines. Articles can be downloaded as PDFs, but I would suggest you simply bookmark the page.

    For international issues related to divorce and child matters, turn to the Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs U.S. Passports & International Travel website. Basic information is available on its Divorce Abroad and Divorce Abroad – Legal Issues websites, which provide links to information about enforcement of judgments and child support, and information on parental child abductions.

    The U.S. and Wisconsin have child support agreements with several countries. These agreements help with establishing paternity and support as well enforcing support orders. For a list of those countries see the DCF’s webpage When Parents Live in Other States, Countries or Tribal Lands.


    Information on the adoption process can be found on the website, sponsored by the Coalition for Children, Youth, Families (CCYF). Under the “Adopting?” tab is a chart of the various types of adoption (domestic, international, stepparent, etc.) as well as application download packets. The CCYF website also hosts a library where you can check out materials on parenting.

    Find lists of adoption agencies in Wisconsin on the DCF and websites. The Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproductive Attorneys provides a list of agencies across the country.

    In the U.S., an international adoption is governed by the laws of the country of the child to be adopted as well as the laws of the U.S. and state where the adoptive parents reside. Resources for international adoption include:

    The Hague Convention is the international agreement that applies to all adoptions by U.S. citizens. Adoptions for children from countries that are members of the Hague Convention will follow the convention’s process; those from nonmember countries will not follow the process. International adoptions in the U.S. will or will not follow the Hague Convention process depending on whether the child being adopted is from a country that is a member of the Hague Convention. Find out more on the or Hague Convention websites.

    Vital Records

    In Wisconsin individuals can requests records in person, by mail, or online by following the instructions on the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website, which also lists information on vital records for adoption-related services. The DCF website has an Adoption Record Search Program for adopted persons to get information about themselves and their birth parents if a termination of parental rights (TPR) was involved.

    If you need a vital record from a state other than Wisconsin, the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provides information on where to write for vital records for all 50 states as well as U.S. territories.

    Public Records: Addresses, Phone Numbers, Assets

    Need to find information on clients such as their assets, addresses, or phone numbers? Westlaw and Lexis offer multiple public records databases that will allow you to locate vehicles, driver’s licenses, addresses, relatives, businesses, court filings, and social media accounts.

    In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions website includes a corporate record search. CCAP can provide contact information, such as addresses and phone numbers, for both individuals and businesses. If the individual or their business has filed bankruptcy, the docket, via Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), can be an excellent source for contact information.

    If you need a criminal background check, you can request one from the Wisconsin Department of Justice Wisconsin (DOJ) Online Record Check System (WORCS). There is a cost associated with the search, and it is strongly recommended that you register for an account.

    Outside Wisconsin, you can find a directory and database of state and federal public record agencies, including courts, on the Free Records Search and Public Records Directory on the website.

    Online telephone directories, such as, offer free address searches, including reverse address or phone number searches. (Cell number searches simply show the cell provider).

    The DCF’s child support Lien Docket is an electronic database of those individuals who owe back child support payments. The database contains liens that have been recorded in county Register of Deeds offices. You can search by party name or by lien docket number. The DCF’s Child Support Lien Docket Handbook provides search tips and a glossary of commonly used terms.

    Professional Associations

    By being a member of a professional organization, you can have a wealth of resources and contacts at your fingertips from your professional colleagues. Many bar associations provide members and non-members with links to resources, directories, and news articles. For example, both the ABA and State Bar of Wisconsin have Family Law and Children and the Law sections.

    There is also the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and even a national organization for those family law practitioners specializing in adoption and assisted reproduction – the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys & Assisted Reproduction Attorneys.

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