Your Chicago Child Custody Case: The Basics

A romance born in Wrigleyville was never meant to last. But now that your ex has absconded to Hyde Park, how do you decide who makes the big decisions for your shared children? Navigating the ins and outs of child custody law can be worse than the Stony Island, 79th Street and South Chicago interchange. Here is some general information on the laws and procedures for gaining custody or visitation rights in Chicago.

What Does Custody Mean?

In Chicago, legal custody means decision-making power, not the amount of time you spend with your child. You and your ex-spouse can have joint custody of a child with only one of you having possession of the child most of the time. On the other hand, you can have sole custody of your child and spend the same amount of time with her as your ex. Custody concerns who makes the major decisions your child’s life: you alone or together with the other parent?

Sole custody is when one parent makes all the major decisions. This means you would decide where your child goes to school, what religion the child practices (if any), and who provides what medical care for your child.

On the other hand, joint custody means that you and your ex would make all the major decisions related to your child together. This does not mean you will both have equal parenting time. Instead, one of you will have “residential custody,” meaning your child will reside mostly with either you or your ex-spouse. Joint custody does not for work for everyone. Chicago courts will only award it if you and your ex can exhibit an ability to cooperate in matters that affect your child. There is no presumption for or against joint custody. Custody is determined based on the best interests of the child, taking into account the parents' and the child's wishes.

How Do I Apply For Custody?

If you and your ex-spouse can agree on custody, you can file a Custody Disclosure Statement with the court. Or you can ask for child custody with these forms:

  • A dissolution of marriage petition;
  • A dissolution of a civil union petition;
  • A paternity petition, a petition for order of protection (temporary custody); or a
  • A petition for custody.

Petitions for custody vary, depending on whether you were married or not, and can be found at Illinois Legal Aid or the Cook County Circuit Court.

Child custody cases must be filed with the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Office either in the Clerk’s Child Protection Division, located at 2245 West Ogden Avenue, Room 13, or in the Clerk’s Domestic Relations Division, located at the Daley Center in Room 802. Child custody cases may also be filed at any of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County offices located in one of the municipal district courthouses.

How Does the Court Determine Custody?

Cook County courts will determine custody based on what is in your child’s best interest. To determine that, the court will consider all of the following factors:

  • You and your ex’s wishes regarding your child’s custody;
  • Your child’s wishes (more important with older children);
  • Interaction of your child with you and/or your ex, your other children, and any other person who might affect your child’s best interests (like your ex’s new spouse);
  • Your child’s adjustment to his/her home, community, and school;
  • Your mental and physical health, along with that of your ex and your child;
  • Any physical violence or threat of physical violence by you or your ex, directed against your child or another person;
  • Any occurrence of ongoing or repeated physical, verbal, or emotional, abuse directed against your child or another person;
  • Willingness and ability of you and your ex to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the other parent and your child; and
  • Whether one of the parents is a sex offender.

The Chicago court only considers the conduct of a parent that affects his/her relationship to the child.

How Do I Change a Child Custody Order?

Without approval from your ex, Chicago courts won’t allow you to apply to change a custody order unless two (2) years have passed or there is reason to believe the child’s present environment might seriously endanger her physical, mental, moral, or emotional health. Even then, the court won’t modify a prior custody judgment unless it finds that:

  • A change has occurred in the circumstances of your child or her custodian (or if you have joint custody that a change has occurred in the circumstances of either you or your ex); and
  • Modification is in the best interests of your child.

If you have joint custody of your child, and you and your ex agree to terminate the joint custody arrangement, the court will make any modification so long as it is in your child’s best interest. If either your or your ex opposes this modification or termination, the court will make modifications based on your child’s best interest.

What Next?

Child custody and visitation law can be complex, especially when dealing with an ex-spouse. If you feel like you need help, you can try scheduling a consultation with an experienced family law attorney or look for free legal aid in Chicago. You can also find more general information in FindLaw’s child custody section.

Next Steps: Search for a Local Attorney

Contact a qualified attorney.