Alternative Ways to Decide Custody in Illinois

Often, when people think of a dispute over a child, their minds go straight to a courtroom complete with lawyers and a judge. But seeking parental responsibilities and parenting time does not mean you have to follow the traditional litigation process.

Parents can often save time and money using one of the following alternative dispute resolution methods to settle their case.

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Voluntary mediation and court-ordered mediation

Mediators guide parents through contentious issues and propose compromises. If the parents reach an agreement, the mediator helps them draft a parenting plan to submit to the court.

The court requires mediation before any custody case goes to trial, unless an order of protection has been issued, the parties have a history of abuse between them or they have already entered voluntary mediation.

In court-ordered mediation, the number of sessions required before parents can give up varies by county. In voluntary mediation, parents often attend sessions regularly over a month or two before reaching a full agreement.

In court-ordered mediation, parents may select their own mediator, choose from a court-certified list or have one assigned to them by the court.

In Cook County, the Family Mediation Services program provides court-ordered mediation at no charge. In all other counties, parents must pay, regardless of whether the mediation is court-ordered or voluntary. Mediators often charge $100 to $500 per hour.

The process does not vary between the two types of mediation.

First, both parties sign a confidentiality agreement. Anything you say during mediation remains private, unless threats of harm are made or a crime is committed during the process.

While sessions often include both parents, mediators can meet independently with you or the other parent.

Experts recommend bringing an attorney, especially to court-ordered mediation. However, many parents represent themselves during voluntary mediation.

After mediation concludes, the mediator reports to the court who attended and whether the parties agreed to settle. He or she does not share details about the process, such as claims made or facts presented.

Collaborative law

In collaborative law, parents work with lawyers and a team of experts to craft an agreement.

Each parent must hire a collaborative attorney to represent them. These lawyers have specialized training in the collaborative process. Your team may also include a financial professional, divorce coach and child specialist, all neutral parties.

Potential benefits of using collaborative law include:

  • Support: Your team provides legal and emotional support.
  • Speed: Many parents reach agreement in five to eight months, and there's no waiting for court dates.
  • Control: You make your own decisions, instead of a judge.
  • Privacy: All discussions are confidential, although court documents are not.
  • Cost savings: Faster resolution means less billable hours.

All parties involved will sign a participation agreement promising they will work together and not withhold information. Parents will attend a number of sessions depending on the complexity of their case, continuing until they agree on their custody issues or decide to move to trial.

Though more expensive than mediation, collaborative law usually costs much less than a trial. Parents often reach an agreement in six to nine months, at which point they file a joint parenting plan with their circuit court.

If parents fail to settle and decide to go to trial, the collaborative lawyers must withdraw their services. You will need to hire a new attorney or represent yourself.

Cooperative law

Cooperative law differs from collaborative law in a few key ways.

The cooperative process offers a less formal approach than collaborative law. Attorneys do not need specialized cooperative process training, and parties may conduct discovery of personal and financial records.

It also allows greater flexibility for parents who don't reach a settlement. If negotiations fail, your cooperative attorney can continue with you into trial.

The cooperative process operates in the same way as the collaborative process. All parties will attend sessions until an agreement is made or the case moves to trial.

Parents may spend more utilizing the cooperative process due to a higher chance of the case continuing to trial. However, if the case moves to trial, parents won't have to spend additional time finding a new attorney.

Early neutral evaluation

Parents who want an impartial opinion on their case may use early neutral evaluation.

In early neutral evaluation, an attorney or judge reviews the facts and hears parents' testimony before providing an analysis of how a judge may rule.

The evaluation is nonbinding and serves as a recommendation for parents. Many parents use it to help them craft a settlement agreement.

Conciliation conference

A conciliation conference is meant to help parents decide to stay together with the help of a counselor.

A judge may order a conciliation conference if he or she believes the parents have a reasonable chance of reconciling instead of divorcing or separating. You or the other parent can also request a conciliation conference.

A trained counselor will guide parents towards reconciliation. If successful, parents will remain together and drop their petitions for custody.

Parents who don't reconcile can continue to trial. Anything discussed during the conciliation conference cannot be used as evidence unless both parents submit a written waiver to allow it.

Attorneys do not attend conciliation conferences, except in abuse cases or if a power imbalance exists between the parents.


Arbitrators are independent bodies — often religious officials — appointed to resolve disputes outside of court.

Parents must agree on an arbitrator or panel of arbitrators to hear their case. From there, the process is much like a trial, with both parents (or their lawyers) presenting evidence and legal arguments. The arbitrator makes a decision based on the evidence.

Parents sometimes choose to divorce via religious arbitration when their religion has its own rules and processes for separation.

However, arbitration is rarely used to allocate parental responsibilities and parenting time because those judgments are nonbinding, or not legally final. A parent can choose to go to trial to challenge an arbitration judgment.

Preparing for alternative dispute resolution

Preparation is as important when you decide parental responsibilities through an alternative method as it is when you decide them in a courtroom.

You'll still be trying to convince someone — the other parent, an evaluator or an arbitrator.

A proposed parenting plan with a parenting time schedule presents your argument persuasively. You may also want to present messages exchanged with the other parent, a log of important interactions with the other parent, your child's expenses, and more.

The Custody X Change online app lets you create all of this in one place.

With a parenting plan template, customizable parenting calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, a parenting journal and an expense tracker, Custody X Change prepares you for any method of deciding custody in Illinois.

It empowers you to get what's best for your child.

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