Custody & Divorce in Illinois
What is the process?
One of the most difficult decisions, when parents move forward with a divorce, is deciding the future of their children. Child custody, now referred to as “parental responsibility” in Illinois, and the time the child spends with each parent is determined by a parental plan that must be approved by the court. Having an understanding of the process can help put your mind at ease, and make sure you make the right choices for your family.
Step 1: Developing a Plan
Though much talk has been made of the new divorce law passed in 2016 and its effect on child custody, the goal is the same: to agree upon aspects of your child's upbringing and welfare. The first thing required by the court in addition to the parenting plan is a financial disclosure statement (or FDS). The FDS is required so the court can get an accurate picture of your assets and debts before weighing in on any major decisions regarding child support.
Next is coming up with the parenting plan itself, which must be filed within 120 days of your divorce petition. Like it sounds, the idea behind the parenting plan is to thoroughly examine every aspect and logistical arrangement of your future parenting arrangement. This plan will outline everything: where the child is during birthdays and holidays, who will have access to their medical or other records, and how parental responsibilities will be divided up.
For more on what parental responsibilities are typically considered by the court, have a look at the section below.
When coming up with your parenting plan, take your time and carefully consider every aspect of the parenting plan, as once it's accepted by the court you will be legally bound to follow it.
Step 2: Parenting Class & Mediation
What happens if you and your spouse cannot come to an agreement? As it is the court's goal to always ensure an outcome that has the child's best interest in mind, they will order mediation if you can't come to an arrangement yourself.
During mediation, a neutral third party will come in to talk both parties through the contested areas of their parenting plan. It is almost always preferable to mediate a conflict and maintain control of your child's future instead of taking an unnecessary risk with a court-ordered plan.
Regardless of whether or not you and your spouse come to a mutual agreement on your parenting plan, the Illinois Supreme Court requires any divorcing couple with a minor child to attend parenting classes. Generally, this takes the form of a four-hour class that both parents attend once their case is finalized. In some cases, the court may require you take the class before your case can be closed.
Step 3: Failed Mediation = Court-Ordered Plan
Sometimes, there's simply no finding common ground, especially relating to something so emotionally charged as your children's future. When mediation breaks down, and both spouses can't agree on terms of their parental plan, the court will do so in their stead. In doing so, they will take a number of factors into consideration to determine the “best interest” of the child. These range from the mundane such as the distance between the parent's houses, to more delicate issues such as whether physical or drug abuse was in the home. If the child is old enough and articulate enough to express their own opinion, it will be considered as well.
In some cases, you may request or the court will appoint a guardian ad litem (known as a GAL), who acts as an attorney and voice for the child. The role of the GAL is to understand the relationship between the child and both parents when the parent's own efforts to present themselves to the court have failed. Their goal is to offer a neutral opinion on what is best for the child, which often involves talking with the child themselves. In most cases, the GAL's opinion to the court will be very carefully considered by the judge.
Regardless, it's important to remember that once you leave the decision making in the hands of the court, you no longer have a say. Unless there are serious reasons to contest a proposed plan, coming to an agreement is preferable to letting a judge decide.
References: Changed Dissolution of Marriage Act
Child Custody Articles & Frequent Questions
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