Illinois family law, child custody rules undergo overhaul

By Annie Hunt | Feb 15, 2016

The start of the new year has brought significant changes to family law and the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (IMDMA), affecting every practitioner and the families they represent in Illinois.

CHICAGO — The start of the new year has brought significant changes to family law and the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (IMDMA), affecting every practitioner and the families they represent in Illinois.

The reforms to the IMDMA took effect on Jan. 1, marking a huge step in the evolution of the how the law conceptualizes legal family values. Smaller revisions have been adopted in the past five years, including civil union issues, same-sex marriage, and maintenance revisions; but this reform involves more comprehensive changes to divorce and childcare laws.

On July 21, 2015, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed the changes into law through the legislation known as Senate Bill 57. The law abolished accusatory grounds for divorce and “heart balm” actions, which previously allowed for those with emotional regress to legally "mend" their hearts. The law also clarifies methods of valuing and dividing assets, among other changes.

While the changes to divorce law are significant, the stakes are raised when children are involved in the legal proceedings, and the new law could alleviate some of that stress for families and children, said Matthew A. Kirsh, family lawyer for Kirsh & Associates.

“I think the changes to the custody provisions are the most important and the most significant. We have done away with the terminology of custody, joint custody, full custody. We are replacing it with the concept of parental allocation of parental responsibilities,” said Kirsh.

“It changes how we get things done. As far as best interest, custody and allocation of parental responsibility is still decided on best interest. That basic can’t be changed, but lawyers should be aware of the changes to what they need to do in order to get a judgment,” he said.

The custody changes also comes with new terminology intended to soften the mindset of parents trapped in legal battles in order to best serve the interests of the child. The terms “custody” and “visitation” have been amended to “parental-decision making” and “parenting time,” respectively. The changes might seem small, but the power of words is pervasive, especially when the emotional stakes are high, Kirsh said.

Beyond changes to the custody provisions, the law has reformed the removal statute, which Kirsh expects to have a significant impact on families.

“The removal statute has been completely rewritten," said Kirsh. "The removal is a huge change. Now if you lived in Calumet City, you could move without having to get full permission for removal, it doesn’t matter if you are going to a different state. For people who live on the Indiana border, it is a big deal.”

If the child no longer lives with the parent and is in college, the court now has the authority to order a parent to pay for college expenses, capped at the cost of attending school at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. With all of the details involved in divorce and custody, the financial evidence can get complicated. So now in the event that a case requires complex financial information, the court has the ability to appoint its own financial expert.

The overhaul of the IMDMA represents a new chapter in Illinois family law with little changes adding up to big differences.

“I think it is a better law for children and families, so I think in the long run it will be seen positively. It is a big change, but really when you get right down to it, it is a lot of little changes," Kirsh said. "The big stuff hasn’t changed. How to calculate child support hasn’t changed, how we determine custody hasn’t changed. There are a lot of changes, but not a huge change."

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Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner Illinois State Bar Association - Chicago Regional Office

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