Alternatives to Court: Illinois Child Custody Options

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 save time and money using one of the alternative dispute resolution methods below.

For most methods, the goal is to help parents agree on a parenting plan, which they can file with the court together to get a judge's approval and settle their case.

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Mediators guide parents through contentious issues and propose compromises. If the parents reach an agreement, the mediator helps them draft a parenting plan. Mediators usually charge $100 to $500 per hour.

The court orders mediation before a custody case goes to trial, unless an order of protection has been issued, the parents have a history of abuse between them or they have already tried voluntary mediation. Parents may choose a mediator together or have one assigned by the court. The number of sessions required before you can give up varies by county.

Cook County offers court-ordered mediation for free. In other counties, parents must pay.

In voluntary mediation, parents often attend sessions regularly over a month or two before reaching a full agreement.

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 each person.

Experts recommend bringing a lawyer, especially to court-ordered mediation. However, many parents don't.

At the end, the mediator reports to the court whether the parents agreed to settle. They do 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 lawyer to represent them. These lawyers have training in reaching an agreement amicably. Your team may also include a financial professional, divorce coach and child specialist, all neutral and shared by the parents.

Potential benefits of using collaborative law include:

  • Support: Your team provides legal and emotional support.
  • Speed: Many parents reach agreement in five to nine 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.

Everyone involved signs an agreement promising to collaborate in good faith and not withhold information. Parents attend sessions until they agree on all issues or decide to move to trial. If they decide to go to trial, they must find new lawyers (or represent themselves).

Though more expensive than mediation, collaborative law usually costs much less than a trial.

Cooperative law

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

  • Lawyers don't need special training.
  • They can conduct formal discovery. Exchanging information is more informal in collaborative law.
  • If negotiations fail, your cooperative lawyer can continue with you into trial.

The cost of cooperative law is similar to that of collaborative law.

Early neutral evaluation

Parents who want an impartial opinion on their case may use early neutral evaluation. It's when a lawyer or judge reviews the facts and hears parents' testimony in order to predict how the judge in the case might rule.

The evaluation serves as a recommendation for parents. Many use it to help them craft a parenting plan.

Conciliation conference

A conciliation conference helps parents decide whether to split up.

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. If the parents reconcile, they drop their petitions for custody.

Parents who don't reconcile can continue through the litigation process afterward. They can't use anything discussed during the conference as evidence, unless they both agree to allow it.

Lawyers do not attend conciliation conferences, except in cases with abuse or where a power imbalance exists between the parents.

Parenting coordination

A parenting coordinator is similar to a mediator in that they help parents reach agreements. However, the coordinator usually works with the parents for a longer period of time and tries to help improve the co-parenting relationship.

Another major difference from mediation is that a parenting coordinator can make a decision when the parents fail to agree. The decision is binding, but a parent may challenge it in court.

The court may order high-conflict co-parents to work with a parenting coordinator, or parents can choose to work with one.

The court won't require parenting coordination until you have an order about parenting. The coordinator will help you interpret the order and make minor decisions it doesn't cover.

If you hire a coordinator privately, you can work with them before you have a parenting order, and they could even help you create a parenting plan.

Parenting coordinators are often trained as mental health professionals or lawyers.


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 divorce arbitration because 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 go to trial to challenge an arbitration judgment about parenting.

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 them, 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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