There are two types of child custody in Illinois: sole custody (a.k.a. “full” custody) and joint custody. Custody issues often take center stage in divorce proceedings and may also cause disagreements between unmarried parents. The ferocity of some custody disputes is unsurprising since a parent’s custodial status essentially dictates whether that parent gets any say in a child’s upbringing. A parent’s right to weigh in on parenting decisions is the main difference between sole custody and joint custody.

A parent who has sole custody in Will County, Illinois has the exclusive right and responsibility to make major decisions about a child’s upbringing. These decisions include the child’s education, health care, emotional care, moral guidance, and religious instruction. A parent with sole custody is referred to as the “custodial parent.” He or she can decide if and when to discuss any parenting decisions with the non-custodial parent but has no obligation to do so. In a sole custody arrangement, the child lives with the custodial parent; the non-custodial parent usually gets visitation rights and pays child support.

When parents have of a child, both have agreed to cooperate and consult with one another on all important decisions regarding their child’s upbringing and care. In other words, both parents have the court’s approval to make major parenting decisions, as long as such decisions comply with the Joint Parenting Agreement. The Joint Parenting Agreement is a document drafted by the parents (or their attorneys) and approved by a judge. The agreement lists “rules” that both parents promise to adhere to in the parenting of their child. It lists the responsibilities of each and may include a child support plan. In short, it describes how the parents intend to cooperate to make decisions about their child’s health, schooling, religion, and the like.

Quite commonly the relationship between divorced or separated couples is emotionally turbulent, and one or both refuse to agree on anything. In such a case, joint custody is probably unrealistic. At the very core of a joint custody arrangement is the spirit of cooperation; if two parents cannot cooperate, a judge is unlikely to find joint custody to be in the best interest of the child. Even if the parents do agree on joint custody, the judge must approve their Joint Parenting Agreement to ensure it is fair and addresses all foreseeable issues. The law specifically states that the Agreement must set out “a procedure by which proposed changes, disputes and alleged breaches may be mediated or otherwise resolved.” (Examples of such procedures include mandatory mediation or petitioning the court so that the judge can decide.)

It is important to note that joint custody does not mean the child will spend equal time with both parents. Just as in sole-custody situations, a child in a joint-custody arrangement lives with one parent the majority of the time; this parent is referred to as the “primary residential parent.” The other parent gets visitation and pays child support.

To summarize, the difference between sole (“full”) custody and joint custody lies primarily in the parents’ decision-making responsibilities, rather than in their financial responsibilities. And although Illinois law tries to promote the involvement of both parents in their child’s life, there is no presumption in favor of joint custody.

Parenting is a challenging yet rewarding journey. Divorce often makes this journey a little bit harder. If you or your child’s other parent intends to file (or has already filed) for divorce in Joliet or Will County, it is essential that you consult a divorce attorney experienced in family law and child custody issues to protect your child’s best interests and your rights as a parent. If you have already separated from your ex and wish to change or enforce an existing child custody order, child support order, or visitation order issued in Joliet or Will County, we can help.

To discuss your personal situation with an experienced attorney, please us at 815.729.9220.

Written by: Sarah Hanneken