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What are Illinois Child Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents?

Even though the child custody and parenting time laws are under the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, in the Prairie State, unmarried parents have the same rights and duties as married parents. The 2016 co-parenting law significantly expanded these responsibilities for both mothers and fathers, whether they were married or not. However, the new law did not substantially alter the child custody factors. More on these things are below.

Child support is a closely related area. The tax code contains different rates for married and unmarried people. But child support rates do not vary based on marital status. Instead, a numerical formula determines the amount of child support, at least in most cases. More on that below as well.

So, regardless of their marital status at the time of filing, parents in Illinois have significant legal and financial rights. A child custody lawyer in Bolingbrook can uphold these rights and ensure the best interests of the children prevail. In the end, that’s the outcome that everyone wants.

Best Interest Factors in Illinois

Despite the aforementioned legal changes, the best interests of the children are still the Northern Star of Illinois family law. Although they usually agree with this general statement, parents often disagree about specific issues. To better define the best interests of a child, Illinois law includes a number of factors, most of which have roughly equal weight.

Child’s Preference

This factor is not as decisive as many people believe it is. In fact, this factor is sometimes a non-factor. Many children don’t directly express preferences because they don’t want to take sides in a divorce or other family law dispute.

There are some other issues as well. Many parents bribe, threaten, cajole, or otherwise influence children to make certain decisions. Sooner or later, this undue influence, if it exists, almost always becomes apparent. Furthermore, even if a child makes a choice, the judge always has the last word.

Incidentally, Illinois does not have an age cutoff in this area. A judge may consider any child’s preference, depending on his/her “maturity and ability to express reasoned and independent preferences as to decision-making.”

Current Living Environment

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law” is a legal aphorism that is usually applicable in child custody disputes, mostly because of the nature of these matters. Before someone goes to court, separated or unmarried parents often have an informal visitation and child support arrangement which, in many cases, might last for years. If this system is working, even if it’s not perfect, many judges would rather keep it.

These informal arrangements are technically unenforceable in family court, even if they are in writing. Only judicial orders are enforceable in family court. That’s why it’s important to formalize the terms of any custody modification, even if the change is minor and both parents agree.

Physical and Mental Health of Parents and Children

Some parents have physical, mental, or other disabilities which prevent them from being effective full-time caregivers. The onset or removal of a disability is one of the most common grounds for subsequent modification. This disability, if it exists, could also affect an original determination.

Some children have special needs in this area. To an extent, additional child support could address this issue. However, parents must still have the tools to deal with the child’s special needs on an everyday basis.

Co-Parenting Ability

In ye olden days, children “lived” with one parent and “visited” the other one. Legally, that distinction no longer exists. Illinois’ co-parenting law requires both parents to assume active roles in the child’s development, at least in most cases.

The law requires parents to be more than civil to one another. They must actively work to cultivate a relationship between the children and the other parent. Not all parents possess this skill or the required mindset.

Furthermore, the law expects parents to work out minor disputes instead of taking them to court. Many parents hire “bulldog” child custody lawyers in Bolingbrook who contest every issue in a case, no matter how minute it is. This approach often backfires. Many judges assume that if parents are stubborn while a judge oversees a case, they will be even more stubborn when court supervision ends. These individuals usually do not make good co-parents.

Parent’s Preferences

These expressions could be direct or indirect. Both expressions have basically the same weight in court.

Some parents either explicitly state that they would rather be weekend parents or they readily agree to such a proposal during a temporary hearing. Once parents express such preferences, it is difficult to un-express them, if that’s a word.

Other parents express their preferences through actions instead of words. Many parents show little interest in the children’s activities before the case goes to court. Then, when the legal process begins, they want to attend every piano recital and baseball game. These sudden changes of heart usually do not impress anyone, least of all a family law judge.

Logistical Concerns

Most of these factors pertain to the overarching principles in a child custody case. But this one usually refers to the everyday nuts and bolts of a parenting timeshare division. The arrangement must fit the requirements of the co-parenting law. However, it must also be realistic. If Mother lives in Homewood and Father lives in Highland Park, anything more than weekend visitation would probably be impossible.

Additional distance makes things even more complicated. At that point, cost concerns, such as airline tickets, become an issue as well.

Domestic Abuse

All domestic abuse, whether it is verbal, physical, emotional, or otherwise, is equally damaging to the victims. However, for family law purposes, there are basically three categories of domestic abuse.

First, there is physical abuse, or a credible threat of imminent physical abuse, directed against a child. The court usually restricts parent-child contact in these situations and adds additional orders as well, such as supervised exchanges and a parenting or anger management class requirement.

Next, there’s any kind of abuse against any member of the household. In most cases, the judge imposes some limitations, but the requirements are not as restrictive. For example, instead of ordering supervised visitation at a social worker’s office, the judge might allow a mother or other relative to supervise.

Finally, there’s a parent’s status as a registered sex offender. Frequently, this category includes domestic abuse which occurred in a prior relationship. Some limits might be appropriate, depending on “the exact nature of the offense and what, if any, treatment in which the parent has successfully participated.”

Agreements Between the Parties

This last factor might be the most important one. Most Cook County judges approve most settlement agreements between the parties, as long as they uphold the best interests of the children.

Frequently, parents reach these agreements during mediation. A third-party mediator, who is usually an unaffiliated Bolingbrook child custody lawyer, meets with both sides and tries to help them find common ground. Legally, the parties must negotiate in good faith, which means they must be willing to compromise. As a result, family law mediation is usually successful.

Child Support in Illinois

As mentioned, arithmetic usually determines the amount of child support payments in the Prairie State. Illinois is an income-share child support state. Therefore, the complex formula takes a number of different factors into account, mostly the proportional income of the parents and the number of overnights the children have with each parent.

Net income for child support purposes is often different than net income for tax purposes. To establish self-employment income, most judges look at a three-month average as opposed to a one-month snapshot.

The judge may deviate from the guidelines if the parents’ income exceeds a certain level. The deviation is also possible if the child has special medical or other needs.

Modifying Court Orders

Either party can modify visitation or support orders if relevant factors have materially and substantially changed. Move-away modifications and support redeterminations are the two most common actions in Illinois.

The law regarding move-away modifications is a bit complex. Generally, if the proposed relocation is within a certain radius, which is usually twenty-five miles in Chicagoland, no court approval is necessary. Otherwise, the move must be in the best interests of the children. Note that there’s a difference between the best interests of the children and the best interests of the parents.

Support redeterminations are usually straightforward, assuming the guidelines apply. An income change of plus or minus 10 percent is usually “substantial” in Illinois, which means modification is appropriate. The same rule of thumb applies to the number of overnights. These changes must also be made in good faith, and they must be permanent. Parents cannot quit their jobs to reduce their child support obligations, and a brief change in the visitation pattern does not justify a permanent modification.

Reach Out to a Diligent DuPage County Child Custody Attorney

The same custody rules apply to married and unmarried parents. For a free consultation with an experienced child custody lawyer in Bolingbrook, contact Keller Legal Services at 630-505-1515. Convenient payment plans are available.