By Jackie Philossoph
This article originally ran online in the Chicago Tribune. It appeared in print on February 18.
Most people who have been through a divorce will tell you that the process can be long, and that months or sometimes even years spent in litigation can cause stress, extra tension between the divorcing couple, and of course, huge legal fees.
But new divorce laws, which went into effect last month, aim to lessen the time couples spend in divorce court, and make the devastating life change easier.
Michael Ian Bender is a Chicago-based family law attorney and former Cook County judge, who gave me some of the highlights of the new statutes. Here are four changes in Illinois divorce law and the reasoning behind each:
1) There are no more grounds for divorce, just ‘irreconcilable differences’
Bender explained that the former law made it difficult for couples to get divorced before living separately for at least two years. So, in order to shorten that length of time, one or both parties would often allege grounds, such as “extreme physical or mental cruelty,” “adultery” or “drug addiction.”
“The other person would get a petition and be shocked because it was so inflammatory,” said Bender, who has been a family law attorney for 22 years. “So it immediately started a fight.”
The new law eliminates grounds and only provides for a no-fault divorce based upon “irreconcilable differences.” Also, the period of time a couple has to be living apart is now six months.
“When people are less defensive they can reach an agreement and move on quicker,” said Bender. “They’re not stuck in the litigation process due to misinterpretation of the other person’s intentions.”
2) The term “custody” is no longer used
The term “custody” in divorce law used to mean the right to make significant decisions for the children, in areas that included health care, education and religion. The new law now calls custody “decision making.”
“People would come to court and say, ‘I want full custody’ because they were confusing the term with parenting time,” Bender said. “The new law is more friendly and understandable to parents as to what those terms mean. And with more understanding comes less stress, anxiety and fear, which leads to more peaceful negotiation.”
3) ‘Visitation’ is now called ‘parenting time.’
“You don’t visit with your child, you parent your child,” Bender said. “Who wants to be told you are visiting your own children? The new term is more accurate and less inflammatory.”
4) Relocation just got easier
The old law: a parent could move anywhere in the state of Illinois without court approval, but if he or she wanted to go beyond state lines they had to get court approval — even if they were moving five miles away, but the new home was in Wisconsin, rather than in Illinois.
The new law states that if the move is 25 miles or less, a parent can move across state lines without seeking court approval. What’s the benefit? According to Bender, it’s protecting children from being taken too far from the other parent while eliminating needless litigation over a benign move.
Being someone who went through a divorce, I think these new laws make a lot of sense, and could make the divorce process smoother, shorter and much less expensive.
Think about it. If you tell a mom she has “visitation,” how does that make her feel? Or how about a dad who gets served divorce papers that include the word adultery on them, when in reality those grounds will make no difference in the outcome of the divorce?
Divorce litigation is an extremely emotional process, and sadly, fear, anger, resentment and jealousy often play a part in one or both of the divorcing party’s decisions. Not having a full understanding of terminology on legal documents or misinterpreting what court orders mean can only intensify one’s already fragile state of mind. That’s why these new laws might really make a difference in reducing conflict, thereby shortening the process.
I do feel the need to express, however, that no matter how hard lawmakers try to simplify and expedite the divorce process, going through a divorce remains brutal. It’s gut-wrenchingly frustrating at times, scary as hell, and it breaks your heart. So there’s a part of me who feels that whether it’s called visitation or parenting time, the bottom line is, divorce means spending less time than you used to with your kids. And no new divorce laws can change that really sad fact.
Jackie Pilossoph is a freelance columnist for Chicago Tribune Media Group. She is also the creator of her divorce support website, Divorced Girl Smiling. Pilossoph lives in Chicago with her two children.