Family Law: Parental Responsibilities (Custody & Visitation)

How do I get custody of my children?

Whether you are married to your children’s other parent or not, the first step to getting custody is to file a petition in the county where your children live. This case could be a dissolution of marriage or an allocation of parental responsibilities, depending on your circumstances.

What are parental responsibilities?

Parental responsibilities, or what is commonly called custody and visitation, include both parenting time and significant decision-making responsibilities.

Parenting time is simply the time a parent has their children in their physical care. Both parents will usually be allocated some amount of parenting time. During their parenting time, each parent is responsible for taking care of the children and making non-significant decisions. Parenting time schedules can vary depending on each family’s circumstances and should take into account factors, such as the children’s ages, parents work schedules, and the distance between each parent’s residence.

Significant decision-making means deciding issues of long-term importance in your children’s lives. These are decisions related to their health, education, religious upbringing, and extracurricular activities. These decisions can be made by one parent or jointly made by both parents.

What is a parenting plan?

A parenting plan is a written agreement or court order that sets out the responsibilities of each parent. It will set forth the parenting time schedule that you will follow and may include special occasions like holidays and vacations. It will also make clear which parent has significant decision-making responsibility, or whether the parents will make decisions together.

How does the judge decide where my children will live?

If parents cannot reach an agreement, the judge will hear testimony and consider evidence about what the parenting time schedule should be. The judge must allocate parenting time according to your children’s best interests. There are several factors the judge must consider before making a decision. Some of those factors include: the parent’s wishes; the children’s wishes; the children’s interaction with the parents; the children’s adjustment to their home and community; the mental and physical health of the parents; and the willingness of each parent to encourage a close relationship between the children and the other parent.

When can my children decide where to live?

Where children want to live is one factor that should be considered when setting up a parenting time schedule. The older kids get, the more a judge might be willing to consider their opinion. However, there is no specific age where a child gets to make that decision on their own.

How long will it take to finish my case?

Unless you and the other parent are in complete agreement about how parental responsibilities should be allocated, it is difficult to determine who long your case will take. If you are not in agreement, the judge will probably require you to attend mediation to see if a compromise is possible. If that is not successful, a guardian ad litem (court appointed attorney to represent the child’s or children’s best interests) might be appointed to do an investigation and make a recommendation as to the best interests of your children. If that still does not settle your case, you will need to prepare for a trial.

These steps can all take time, and depend on the availability of the parents, the judge and the mediator or guardian ad litem. The Supreme Court has established a rule that, unless there are unusual circumstances, all parental responsibilities cases should be resolved within 18 months. While there are some cases that do take the full 18 months, or even longer, most parents have a final order before that deadline has passed.

What will I have to do while my case is pending?

One thing you will be required to do is attend a four-hour parenting education program that covers the allocation of parental responsibilities and its impact on your children. This course is required by an Illinois Supreme Court Rule and all parents must attend, even if they agree about parenting time and decision-making.

If the court orders you to attend mediation, you will need to make sure you schedule and attend those appointments. If a guardian ad litem is appointed, you will have to cooperate and assist with that investigation to the best of your ability.

If it seems unlikely you will reach an agreement with your children’s other parent, you can also work on gathering evidence that might be helpful to your case. Each case will have different types of evidence, but you might have school or medical records, text messages, photographs, social media posts, and/or other similar items or records that might be useful in your case. Your attorney can help you figure out the types of evidence to gather and determine what might be useful should your case go to trial.