In Illinois, a divorce is finalized when a judge enters a Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage. How that happens depends on the circumstances of the case, the willingness of the parties to come to their own agreements rather than have a judge decide for them, and the attorneys involved in the case.
The litigation process starts when one spouse files a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage in the appropriate county courthouse. The person who files first is called the Petitioner (or Plaintiff, depending on the county). The other spouse is then referred to as the Respondent (or Defendant). The Respondent is then served with a Summons and a copy of the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage by the Sheriff or a private process server, or, if he or she already has an attorney, that attorney may accept service of the Summons. Once the Respondent has been served, he or she has 30 days to file an appearance with the court and any Response to the Petition. Sometimes, the Petitioner’s attorney simply contacts the Respondent directly to ask him or her to voluntarily file his or her Appearance with the clerk as a way of voluntarily acknowledging receipt of the Summons and Petition. This method avoids the embarrassment and expense of being served at home or work (or some other location) by the Sheriff.
After both spouses or their attorneys have filed their appearances and any responses, then the parties engage in “discovery,” where financial documents are requested and exchanged, and written questions are asked and answered in writing regarding the assets and liabilities of the marriage. Eventually all of the assets and liabilities of the marriage must be assigned to one party or the other in a Marital Settlement Agreement which then becomes part of an enforceable court order. How long it takes to gather all this information depends on how quickly discovery requests are served and responded to, and whether the parties work diligently in complying with requests or ignore the requests, which then will create the need for court intervention.
If there are minor children involved, an Allocation Judgment and Parenting Plan must also be prepared and signed by both parties and submitted to the court. This document sets forth the allocation of Parental Rights and Responsibilities for such issues as who will be responsible for the significant decision-making for the children, and what specific parenting time (both routine and holiday) will be enjoyed by each parent.
EMERGENCY OR TEMPORARY RULINGS
Sometimes during the divorce process, a party feels the need to file a petition seeking emergency or temporary relief. Examples of temporary orders that the judge may enter include: temporary child support, temporary maintenance (formerly known as alimony), contribution to marital expenses (like the mortgage), exclusive possession of the marital residence, and orders of protection. Some of these orders may eventually be replaced by similar provisions in the final Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage. Others, like an order of protection may be in place for up to 2 years, even if the divorce is finalized before then.
A small percentage of cases end up going to trial. This is because even if the parties fight long and hard during the divorce, in the end, both parties often conclude that they would rather make deals that they can live with, rather than leave it all up to the judge and then have to live with orders made by someone who does not know them or their families. If you cannot decide with your spouse about how you will allocate parental rights and responsibilities, the judge will decide. If you cannot agree on the times when each of you will see your children, the judge will decide that for you. If you cannot agree on how to divide the marital assets and/or debts, the judge will decide.