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Heather Jones

Understanding involuntary commitment to a mental health facility in Wisconsin is crucial when you or a loved one may be at risk and treatment is not a voluntary option. This guide demystifies the process, discusses your legal rights, and offers insight into alternatives, providing the essential information you need without overwhelming detail.  

Wisconsin is known as a “least restrictive state” regarding its legal approach to mental health. That means that the Wisconsin mental health law, contained in Chapter 51 of the Wisconsin code, values individual rights and liberties and encourages those to be protected. Generally, Wisconsin law favors voluntary over involuntary treatment for individuals dealing with mental health issues. If you have stumbled upon this article, it is likely either you are worried about being involuntarily committed, or you are the friend or relative of a person who you believe is a potential danger to themselves. Read on to learn more about Wisconsin’s involuntary commitment and mental health law.  

Three types of involuntary commitment in Wisconsin

  • Emergency Detention (the 72-hour hold)  
  • Directors Hold or Petition  
  • Three Party Petition


Emergency Detention: in Wisconsin, emergency detention is used when a person is a significant danger to themselves or others, and the police are contacted. The police will take the person into custody, and there will be a 72-hour hold, during which the party will be evaluated at a mental health facility. Once evaluated, the person can either be released if it is determined they are not in danger or a danger to others. The person can also voluntarily remain a patient. The third option is that the person needs treatment and refuses it, which is where a three-party petition comes into play. This hold is authorized by Chapter 51 of the Wisconsin State Statutes. If the situation is bad enough, you may be able to get what is called an Emergency Custody Order while you wait for a three-party petition to be heard by a court.  


Directors Hold: directors hold is when a party has admitted themselves for treatment at a mental health facility and then, against medical advice, decides to leave the hospital where they are receiving treatment. It is also referred to as a director’s petition. In such cases, the director must demonstrate in their petition that the patient is at significant risk of harm to themselves or others before the hold will be granted.  


Three-Party Petition: a three-party petition is what we will explore at length in this article because it is the action concerned with friends or family members that can take on behalf of a friend or loved one struggling with their mental health.  

What is Chapter 51 in Wisconsin?

Chapter 51 governs the civil process for involuntary commitment in Wisconsin. In order for the party to be considered for involuntary commitment in Wisconsin, they must be dealing with one of three categories of issues:

1 - They must be a danger to themselves or to those around them  

2 - Dealing with mental illness, substance abuse issues, or developmentally disabled OR  

3 - They must be what is referred to as a “proper subject for treatment”  

The best step you can take if you think that a friend or loved one needs help is to contact the local department of health and human services. They will be able to provide a case worker who can visit with the person and any friends and family in order to evaluate if they need services. Note that it is for non-emergency situations. In an emergency situation, you should contact the police.    

Involuntary Commitment in Wisconsin -Three Party Petition

Typically, the three-party petition process starts with a call to the police. For whatever reason, be it mental illness or drugs and alcohol, the person poses a significant risk of harm to themselves or to others. Once the person is taken into emergency custody, you can ask for and receive what is called an emergency custody order.  

The emergency custody order is just a temporary order until you go to court for a full custody hearing. When you call the police, you will need to let the officers know that there is a psychiatric crisis occurring so that ideally, an officer trained in Crisis Intervention will be sent to assist with handling the situation safely. The criteria for an emergency custody order are:  

-the party has a mental illness, and that illness, either presently or in the future, will create a situation where they will be a danger to themselves or others  

-the party has a mental illness, and that illness will create a situation where the party is unable to care for themselves or protect themselves from harm  

-the party is in need of treatment or hospitalization AND  

-the part is unwilling or unable to voluntarily enter treatment or hospitalization  

Once the party in danger has been placed in emergency detention and you have an emergency custody order, you can begin the three-party petition process. The petition is for involuntary commitment. Three people must sign this petition. At least one of the people signing the petition must have personal knowledge of the facts and circumstances. You will need to be in contact with the local magistrate for the county in which you are filing the petition. The local magistrate must be involved in the petition process; you cannot simply prepare a petition and file it in the system without the magistrate.  

Once the petition is filed correctly, the judge can then either order a 72-hour hold (if not done already) where the person will be evaluated, or the judge can set it for a commitment hearing, with notice given to the other party both orally and in writing.   

What Happens at an Involuntary Commitment Hearing in Wisconsin?

At the hearing, the judge will examine any evidence and take sworn testimony. Once the court has heard all the evidence, the court will determine if the party meets the criteria for commitment. If that party does meet the criteria for commitment, the court will go over what the treatment plan is with mental health care providers.  

If the court does not find that the person meets the criteria for commitment, the court can determine that there is no reason to detain the person or monitor them in any way, and they will be free to go. If the court finds probable cause, the emergency custody order may remain in place, and the matter may be calendared for an additional hearing at a later date. The court does impose scheduling rules so that there is no undue delay in having the next hearing.  

The court can also find that, while the person does not meet the criteria for involuntary commitment, the person does meet the criteria for adult guardianship in the state of Wisconsin. If the person does require adult guardianship, the court can order protective placement or services, which will vary from individual to individual.  

There is also the possibility that the court will request the party to enter into some type of agreed-upon treatment plan, especially in instances where drugs or alcohol are the issues. The court could propose an agreement where, if the party complies with a specific plan for 90 days, the possibility of involuntary commitment will be dismissed. If the party agrees to and successfully completes the 90-day plan, they will be free to go on their way. While this may sound like the least restrictive solution, that is because it is. Remember at the beginning of the article Wisconsin was identified as a “least restrictive” state? Wisconsin will not hesitate to try and ensure that personal liberty is respected while also doing its most to protect the safety of all Wisconsin residents.  

If you are struggling with a friend or family member who is dealing with mental health issues, your first call should be to your local county’s mental health treatment services department. You will be able to speak with a counselor or psychiatrist who can evaluate the situation and let you know if immediate emergency steps should be taken. Once you have ensured that any immediate risk is mitigated, you should consult with an experienced Wisconsin attorney who has a background in mental health law and can advise you on appropriate next steps. Feel free to reach out to O’Flaherty Law; we would be happy to help you.  

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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