Many couples in Illinois find that they can reduce the stress and cost of getting divorced by having a neutral mediator guide them through the process of finding solutions to the practical and legal issues involved in ending their marriage. And in some cases, couples might be required to participate in mediation of certain issues. Here's what you need to know about divorce mediation in Illinois.
You and your spouse may mediate disputes at any point in the process of ending your marriage, including after your divorce is final.
If you and your spouse can reach a separation agreement before you actually file for divorce (known as "dissolution of marriage" in Illinois), you'll be able to get an uncontested divorce—which is faster and cheaper than a traditional, contested divorce. (And if you meet the other qualifications, you might save even more time and money with the streamlined process in Illinois known as "joint simplified dissolution.")
The separation agreement must cover all of the important issues involved in ending your marriage, including:
If you're running into problems agreeing with your spouse about any of these issues, a mediator can help. Most mediators will prepare a written document that reflects any agreements you reach during the process. And if mediation results in a comprehensive separation agreement, some mediation services will even help with the divorce filing process.
If you or your spouse resisted the mediation process before filing for divorce, that resistance might change once your case proceeds. For example, it often happens that spouses become more open to mediation after evidence comes to light during the discovery process, which provides legal tools for getting documents and information from the other spouse.
Also, the judge might order you to mediate certain issues during in your divorce case if you don't try it on your own (more on that below).
Of course, the end of your marriage doesn't always mean the end of disagreements with your ex—especially if you're still coparenting or making support payments. For instance, one of you might want to move with the children, adjust the parenting schedule, or change the amount of alimony or child support. If you can't agree on the changes, mediation can help you avoid expensive, lengthy legal battles over requests to modify the orders included in a dissolution judgment. Here again, a judge might order you to mediate certain post-divorce disputes.
Under Illinois law, judges must order parents to participate in mediation if they haven't agreed on a parenting plan as part of their divorce, or if they haven't been able to agree on changing or enforcing their existing plan. The state also requires local circuit courts in Illinois to have mediation programs for any cases involving custody, visitation, a child's relocation, or parenting time—whether the parents are married or not. The only exception for mandatory custody mediation is when there are "impediments" to the mediation process in a particular case (more below on those impediments). (750 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 5/602.10(c); Ill. Sup. Ct. Rules, rule 905 (2023).)
Depending on the county, local rules might also allow judges to order mediation of other issues in dissolution cases besides custody. In Cook County and Will County, for example, judges may order couples to mediate any contested divorce issue. When that happens in Cook County, spouses may claim they have a good reason for an exemption, but a judge will decide whether to overrule their objection. (Ill. Cook Co. Cir. Ct. Rule 13.4; Ill. Will Co. Cir. Ct. Rules, rule 8.17 (2023).)
The cost of divorce mediation can depend on a number of different factors in your situation, such as:
Depending on your county, you might be able to get free or low-cost mediation services through the court when a judge has ordered you to mediation and you can't afford to pay. The rules—and the costs—vary from county to county. For instance:
Typically, court-ordered mediation (and any associated fees) includes a three-hour mediation session, plus one hour of the mediator's time for preparation and other administrative tasks. The judge will generally decide how much of the total cost each spouse should pay.
Even when you've been ordered to mediation, you and your spouse may always agree on a mediator of your choice rather than one from the court's list or court-connected mediation services. In that case, you'll pay the private mediator's fee.
Private mediators who are also attorneys typically charge about $250-$500 an hour. Mediators with other types of training or certification usually charge somewhat lower rates. If you use a mediation service, you'll typically pay a flat fee for a certain number of sessions, but you might be able to get extra hours for an additional fee. You might also have the option of paying for additional services like help with preparing and filing the paperwork to finalize your divorce.
Of course, the total bill will depend on how many hours of mediation you'll need to resolve all of the issues in your divorce. Typically, the total cost of mediation ranges from about $3,000 to $8,000. If that sounds like a lot of money, it might help to know that each spouse will usually pay half of the total—and that divorce can cost even more when you have to hire your own lawyer and go to trial to resolve your disputes. With mediation, you also have more say over the outcome of your divorce than if you have to rely on a judge to make the decisions for you.
Despite the advantages of mediation, it might not be right for some couples. Divorce mediation works best when both spouses feel free to say what they want and voice their opinions, without worrying about being bullied or even abused as a result. That's why mediation is almost always inappropriate for couples who are experiencing ongoing domestic violence or abuse. There are also other situations that could get it in the way of effective mediation, such as when there's a history of abuse or a significant imbalance of power between the spouses.
Under Illinois court rules, couples will be excused from mandatory mediation of custody issues if the judge finds that there's an impediment to mediation that would make it inappropriate or unreasonably interfere with the mediation process. In addition to family violence, potential impediments cited in state and local court rules include a spouse's:
(Ill. Sup. Ct. Rules, rule 905; Ill. 18th Jud. Cir. Ct. Rules, rule 15.15; Ill. Cook Co. Cir. Ct. Rules, rule 13.4 (2023).)
If you decide to go ahead with voluntary mediation despite a history of verbal or physical abuse from your spouse, you can request safety measures, such as meeting with the mediator separately from your spouse (sometimes referred to as "shuttle mediation"). Even with online mediation, separate meetings may help you feel safer about voicing your opinions.
Before the mediation actually starts, you'll need to do some preparation. First, gather any information and documents that are related to the disputes in your divorce. For example, if you and your spouse disagree about whether some assets are marital or separate property, gather the financial records related to those assets. Some mediators will ask for this information as part of the initial intake process.
Mediation typically follows the same general stages:
Mediation in Illinois is confidential, with limited exceptions. The mediator may not reveal—even to a judge—anything you and your spouse said or any documents you provided as part of the mediation process, unless you both agree to the disclosure. Other exceptions to this rule include:
(710 Ill. Comp. Stat. 35/4– 35/8 (2023).)
At the conclusion of mediation, most mediators will prepare a written document that reflects any agreements that came out of the process. Some mediators (especially those who are attorneys) may also help prepare a formal separation agreement. If you can, it's a good idea to have a lawyer review the agreement to make sure you haven't missed anything or given up any of your legal rights.
If you reached a complete settlement agreement in mediation before starting the official divorce process, you'll then need to prepare your divorce papers and file for a "dissolution of marriage" in Illinois. (Or you can file for divorce online and get help with the paperwork.)
Unlike some states, Illinois doesn't have a waiting period before you may proceed to your final divorce hearing (sometimes called a "prove-up"). As soon as the spouse who didn't file the initial petition files a response, you may ask to have the hearing scheduled.
You and your spouse will both need to attend the hearing. Give the judge a copy of your settlement agreement and other required paperwork (including a prepared Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage), unless you've already submitted it to the court. The judge will review the papers and might ask you some questions. If everything is in order, the judge will sign the final divorce judgment, making the agreement part of the judgment
You don't have to agree to anything in mediation, even when you've been ordered to take part in the process. If you don't reach a separation agreement with your spouse—whether in early mediation or later on during the legal divorce proceedings (typically through your lawyers)—you'll have to go to trial and have a judge rule on any unresolved issues in your case.