As a parent, you more likely than not have many preferences, hopes, and ideas about where your children should live and how they should be raised following your divorce. At the same time, your soon-to-be-ex-partner might have ideas of their own — ones that may not necessarily line up with your wishes and goals, or with what’s in the best interest of your child. As a result, deciding on the best course of action for the children is often one of the thorniest aspects of an Illinois divorce — and it is vital that parents understand what to expect and how to prepare for any hearings or court proceedings that involve the allocation of parental responsibilities and parenting time, formerly known as custody.

In this article, we will dive into some of the important child-related duties and responsibilities that must be allocated during an Illinois divorce, before touching on the ins and outs of a typical court hearing — and how an experienced family law attorney can help guide you forward, at every step of the way. 

Understanding Allocation of Parental Responsibilities and Parenting Time

As previously noted, the concepts of legal custody and physical custody are no longer in use in Illinois. Instead, the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act focuses on the allocation of parental responsibilities, including decision-making and parenting time. 

“Parenting time” refers to a period during which one parent is responsible for caring for the child, which includes providing food, shelter, education, medical care, and discipline. Parenting time includes making routine or everyday decisions for the benefit of the child, as well as making emergency decisions in response to pressing matters affecting the child’s health and safety.

“Parental responsibilities” is a broad term, and encompasses both parenting time and significant decision-making responsibilities with respect to a child. This encompasses decisions regarding “issues of long-term importance in the life of a child,” including, but not necessarily limited to, their education, health, religion, and extracurricular activities. 

What Is the Process for Allocating Parental Responsibilities During an Illinois Divorce? 

During a divorce, a proceeding for allocation of parental responsibilities is most commonly commenced when one parent either:

  • Files a petition for dissolution of marriage or legal separation or declaration of invalidity of marriage; or
  • Files a petition for allocation of parental responsibilities with respect to the child in the county in which the child resides.

When a proceeding for allocation of parental responsibilities is commenced, the petitioning party must serve a written notice and a copy of the petition on the child’s other parent or guardian currently allocated parental responsibilities at least 30 days before any hearing on the petition.

Once the petition has been filed and the summons has been served, the other party is given time to respond. If they fail to respond, the petitioning party may seek a default judgment from the court. 

At this point, the petitioner and the responding party have 120 days to prepare and file a proposed parenting plan, either jointly or separately. A parenting plan is a signed, written agreement that allocates significant decision-making responsibilities, parenting time, or both. In addition to allocating significant decision-making responsibilities and parenting time, the parenting plan should set forth each parent’s right of access to the child’s medical records; provisions regarding a future change of residence; provisions requiring each parent to notify the other in case of emergencies, health care, travel plans, or other significant child-related issues; transportation and communication arrangements; and more.

Broadly speaking, the court will order mediation to assist the parents in formulating or implementing a parenting plan, unless the court determines that significant impediments to mediation exist. If the parents submit an agreed parenting plan, it must be reviewed and approved by the court, which may conduct a hearing to determine whether the parenting plan is in the child’s best interests. If no parenting plan is filed, then the court will conduct an evidentiary hearing to allocate parental responsibilities. If the parents cannot agree or otherwise fail to submit an agreed-upon parenting plan, then each parent must file and submit a written, signed parenting plan to the court.  The court will then conduct a trial or hearing and issue an allocation judgment which maximizes the child’s relationship and access to both parents, with the goal of ensuring that the access and the overall plan are in the best interests of the child. The court will take the proposed parenting plans into consideration when issuing its final allocation judgment. 

When considering the best interests of the child when allocating parental responsibilities and/or parenting time at trial or hearing, the court will take into account a number of relevant factors, including: 

  • The wishes of the child, with consideration paid to the child’s maturity and ability to express reasoned and independent preferences
  • The wishes of the parents
  • The child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community
  • The mental and physical health of all individuals
  • The ability of the parents to cooperate to make decisions, or the level of conflict between the parties that may affect their ability to share parental responsibilities
  • The level of each parent’s participation in past significant decision-making and caretaking functions with respect to the child
  • Any prior agreement or course of conduct between the parents relating to decision-making or caretaking functions with respect to the child
  • The child’s needs
  • The distance between the parents’ residences, the cost and difficulty of transporting the child, each parent’s and the child’s daily schedules, and the ability of the parents to cooperate in the arrangement
  • The willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the other parent and the child
  • The physical violence or threat of physical violence by the child’s parent directed against the child
  • The occurrence of abuse against the child or other member of the child’s household
  • Whether one of the parents is or lives with a convicted sex offender, and if so, the exact nature of the offense and what, if any, treatment in which the offender has successfully participated
  • Any other factor that the court expressly finds to be relevant

The court may also, after a hearing, enter orders restricting one parent’s parental responsibilities, if it finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a parent engaged in any conduct that seriously endangeres the child’s mental, moral, or physical health or that significantly impairs the child’s emotional development.

What Happens at a Parental Responsibilities Hearing or Trial? 

Parental responsibilities proceedings will take place in the family court of the county in which the petition was filed. 

Prior to the beginning of a parental responsibilities trial, a pre-trial conference or hearing may be held. In a pre-trial conference, the judge will review the facts of the case and arguments with the attorneys, and discuss scheduling, witnesses, and exhibits; he or she may also use this opportunity to encourage the attorneys to work with their clients to reach a settlement before the trial date. The judge may also offer another chance for a last-minute settlement immediately prior to the trial.

As with most civil trials or hearings, a parental responsibilities proceeding will include opening statements, in which each attorney lays out their client’s position. Attorneys will then present evidence and witness testimony. The parties involved in the petition will likely be called to testify, as well as any expert witnesses who can lend a professional perspective on important issues (such as a doctor, accountant, or psychiatrist) and anyone else whose testimony may be relevant (such as a nanny, teacher, babysitter, social worker, or another witness). After direct examination, all witnesses can be cross-examined, meaning that both parties’ attorneys will be able to question each witness if they choose to do so. Attorneys will then issue closing statements. In parental responsibilities proceedings, judges will often issue their rulings very swiftly after the close of arguments, though, in some cases, they may take longer to decide.

How Can Parents Prepare for the Proceedings?

Going into family court  can be incredibly intimidating. One of the most effective ways to prepare is to seek out the guidance of an experienced divorce and family law attorney who knows the ins and outs of how this process works in your local area. A family law attorney can help guide you through the entire process, from beginning to end. In the event of a hearing or trial, your attorney will be your advocate and partner, and can walk you through every little detail you need to know and prepare for, including: 

  • Understanding what to expect during your hearing or trial, including the aspects of your case that are unique. 
  • Collecting, organizing, and filing all of the necessary documents, including legal paperwork as well as personal records, calendars, and other admissible evidence that supports your case. 
  • Helping you prepare for questioning and arguments, so that you can be succinct, honest, accurate, and respectful. 
  • Understanding appropriate courtroom etiquette, including how to conduct yourself with a judge, how to dress, and when to arrive.

Do You Have Any More Questions About Divorce or Family Law in Chicago?

Understanding the many moving parts that go into an Illinois divorce can be confusing and exhausting, even under the best of circumstances. There are many details and conditions in family law that can be difficult to fully understand. Fortunately, you don’t have to go through this stressful time alone.

At The Law Offices of J. Jeltes, Ltd., we make it our mission to ensure that our clients understand the divorce process at each and every step of the way. Our attorneys and staff are skilled in handling legal matters in some of life’s most challenging family transitions, including divorce and the many considerations that go along with it — including issues of property division, maintenance, allocation of marital debts, parental responsibility, and parenting time. 

Our legal professionals are driven, attentive, and dedicated to achieving the best results possible. We truly understand that every situation is unique, and before hiring our firm our attorneys will provide you with a comprehensive one-on-one consultation to discuss your legal concerns and goals.

If you have any more questions about any aspect of divorce or family law in Illinois, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of experienced and compassionate advocates to continue the conversation.