Covid-19 and parenting timeIt’s no surprise that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has flooded the domestic relations courtrooms with a flurry of never-before-seen litigation. The courts are dealing with unprecedented issues such as taking parenting time and parental decision-making away from a parent who refuses to get vaccinated or who refuse to vaccinate a child at the age of 12 and older. Specifically, judges have recently ruled on these issues and relied on the “serious endangerment” and “best interest of the child” standard to restrict parenting time and order mask wearing and/or vaccinations of parents and children. Some litigants (and lawyers) argue that judges are forcing their personal beliefs on the parties and/or taking a political stance, while others believe these judges are playing their part in ending the pandemic and keeping people safe.  Regardless of your personal view on the vaccine or mask mandate, the legal question presented is whether the court has the authority to take such action and if so, what is the burden of proof a litigant must meet. 

Under Illinois law, to restrict a parent’s parenting time, the party seeking to restrict the parenting time must show by a preponderance of the evidence, (more likely than not), that unrestricted parenting time presents a “serious and present endangerment” to the child’s emotional, mental, moral, or physical health. If, after hearing, the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that a parent engaged in any conduct that seriously endangered the minor child’s emotional, mental, moral, or physical health, the court may enter orders as necessary to protect the child. This means that the court can enter orders to restrict a parent from seeing his or her child, reduce a parent’s parenting time, take away a parent’s right to make significant decisions for the child, and order supervised parenting time, among other relief. The statute also includes a “catch all” provision that states that a court may impose “any other constraints or conditions that the court deems necessary to provide for the child’s safety or welfare.” In order to restrict a parent’s parenting time, the court has to make actual findings that parenting time with a parent be restricted due to a serious and present endangerment to the child.

Recently, Cook County Judge Shapiro came under scrutiny in the media for taking parenting time away from a mother who was the parent allocated the majority of parenting time after discovering that the mother was unvaccinated. This was done by the Judge sua sponte, meaning “on the court’s own motion,” without any hearing (no evidence or testimony was presented).  In that situation, the attorneys in the case had not filed any type of pleading related to restriction of the mother’s parenting time due to her forgoing the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the mother, she was advised by her doctor not to receive the vaccine because she had adverse reactions to vaccines in the past. Despite the fact that the issue was not pending before the Court, the Judge asked the mother if she was vaccinated at a court appearance via Zoom. When she said that she was not, the Judge ordered that custody of the child be immediately turned over to the father and suspended the mother’s parenting time until she obtained the vaccine.  Later, after the issue sparked much attention in the media, the judge voluntarily vacated his own order.

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DCFS InvestigationDivorce is not only a legal process, but it is also an emotional process. At times, the divorce process can get extremely hectic and litigious between spouses, especially when they have different parenting styles and disagree on how to raise their children. Sometimes, this tension is enough to create doubt that the other parent is properly caring for the children or result in allegations regarding the same. In severe instances, parents, teachers, neighbors, or family members may even contact the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) if they believe the children may be in danger. For parents who are going through a divorce, it is important to understand how DCFS investigations work and how they may impact your divorce case.

In Illinois, DCFS is responsible for investigating any reports of possible child abuse and neglect. These investigations typically take 60 days to complete. Its goal is to protect the health, safety, and best interests of a child in situations where that child may be vulnerable to abuse or neglect. In gathering evidence during their investigation, a DCFS investigator will often visit the family home, meet with the child and the parents, and meet with any other individuals living in the home. The investigator will also make contact with the person who made the initial report, although that person’s identity will remain anonymous.

DCFS findings of abuse or neglect can be used as evidence in a divorce case against the other parent for purposes of determining parenting time and parental responsibilities. For that reason, DCFS investigations should be taken very seriously when you are going through a divorce. If the investigation is “unfounded,” that means that DCFS did not find evidence of abuse or neglect, and the case will be closed. An “unfounded” DCFS report will typically have little to no impact on your ability to have parenting time or make decisions for your children. However, if abuse or neglect is found, the accused parent is then labeled as “indicated.” An “indicated” finding means that DCFS has concluded there is credible evidence that a child has been abused or neglected.

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Divorce ReconciliationIn some instances, a party files for divorce and then decides that reconciliation may be possible and wishes to stop the divorce proceedings.  It is important to know that just because you have filed a case, does not mean that you are required to get divorced and if you and your spouse decide you wish to attempt reconciliation, you do have options.  At McSwain Nagle & Giese, P.C. we believe in making all efforts to preserve the family unit and we always encourage parties to pursue their options for reconciliation in safe and healthy marriages.

If the case is being dismissed entirely, there are procedural requirements that must be followed.  The party who files the initial Petition for Dissolution of Marriage is known as the Petitioner in the divorce case. The other party is known as the Respondent. The Respondent can file a counter-Petition in which case they are also known as the Counter-Petitioner.  This is relevant because if you are the Respondent in the case, the Petitioner must agree to the case being dismissed.  If you are the Petitioner, and the Respondent does not agree, you may still be able to withdraw your Petition and close the case, as long as no Counter-Petition or custody proceeding has been filed and you pay the filing fees of the other party. 

Oftentimes parties who are attempting reconciliation are not certain that their attempts at saving their marriage will be successful but do wish to try.  In those instances, the parties may not want to dismiss their case entirely, but rather wish to put it on hold.  Frequently, marriage counseling is being attempted during this hold period and the parties do not wish to continue the litigation process while actively trying to salvage their marriage.  Litigation is by definition adversarial and typically not conducive to reconciliation.    

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Discovery ProcessIn many divorce cases, one spouse knows very little about the family finances, assets and debts, or the other spouse’s income and employment. There are many reasons why that could be the case, but often times it is because the other spouse was responsible for handling all of the financial aspects of the parties’ lives while they were married. Even in situations where the parties believe they are familiar with the other party’s income and assets, confirming that full disclosure has been made under oath is critical for diligence purposes.  Further, the exchange of financial information of both parties is necessary in order to reach a fair resolution in the case, whether through trial or settlement. Therefore, attorneys always recommend that the parties participate in full discovery during the divorce process.

Discovery is the process by which parties in a court case can obtain information and evidence that may be relevant to the specific facts or allegations in their case. Discovery is also commonly known as the “information gathering” stage of a case.  In a divorce case, typically all income and financial assets are relevant, even if they are non-marital, and at least 3-5 years of information is requested. It can be time consuming to prepare and gather as well as for the recipient to review and parties often spend many hours sorting through PDF’s or bankers boxes of documents in order to comply.

To begin the process, parties typically issue various requests including a Notice or Request to Produce and Interrogatories. A Notice to Produce requests that the other party produce any and all documents they have, or can reasonably obtain access to, in response to the specific requests set forth in the notice. For example, a Notice to Produce in divorce cases typically contains requests for financial documents such as paystubs, tax returns, bank account statements, and/or retirement plan statements.  While a spouse may not physically possess every bank statement for the last 3 years, the documentation is in their control and therefore they are obligated to reach out to the financial institution and request the information.  Interrogatories, on the other hand, are requests that ask the other party to answer, in written format, specific questions that may be relevant to the divorce case. For example, Interrogatories typically contain a request for the other party to list information such as their employment history, income, bank accounts, and/or retirement assets. The Supreme Court Rules contains the standard Interrogatories that must be used in a divorce proceeding unless a party is permitted by the court to ask for different information. 

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DuPage County parental relocation attorneysAfter a divorce, many people want a “fresh start,” and hope to find that by moving to another location. Sometimes, their move is prompted by a better job opportunity, a new significant other or family members, or better housing and school opportunities. Regardless of the reason, parents who share parenting time with their children cannot simply up and move. Rather, Illinois law requires that parents abide by certain rules and procedures for relocation with the children. 

Under Illinois law, the term “relocation” is defined as follows:

“(1) a change of residence from the child’s current primary residence located in the counties of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, or Will to a new residence within this State that is more than 25 miles from the child’s current residence, as measured by an internet mapping service;

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