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One Year Later: How Changes to Illinois Divorce Laws Impact Middle-Class Spouses

One Year Later: How Changes to Illinois Divorce Laws Impact Middle-Class Spouses

By: M. Scott Gordon

About one year ago, the Illinois Bar Journal published an article about sweeping changes to Illinois family law that would impact both the language and substance of divorce, spousal maintenance, and child custody in the state. These changes to the law impacted the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (750 ILCS 5/), also known as the IMDMA, and they took effect on January 1, 2016.

Now that the changes to the IMDMA have been in place for almost one year, are we at a point at which we can reflect on how those changes to the law have impacted families in the Chicago area? According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, one of the primary lessons learned from the IMDMA changes is that they may have the biggest impact on middle-class families.

Recalling the History of Illinois Divorce Law and Reasons for Revising It in 2016

As the article explains, many of the family law policy changes that have come about quite recently “are driven by attempts to correct past injustices that often left ex-wives with little money and no viable way to support themselves after years to raising children.” To be sure, the changes that took effect in 2016 were the first major modifications in Illinois in forty years. The last time Chicago area residents saw major changes to divorce law was back in 1977 “in the wake of the women’s liberation movement,” the article suggests. At that point in time, the law was changed to deal with spousal support and “in particular to provide for divorcing wives with little or no education or who dropped out of careers to help their spouses advance.” Prior to those changes in the law, when couples divorced, the wife often lost out on assets and did not receive alimony payments.

Just as changes to the law in 1977 sought to reflect—or even better, to address—concurrent sociocultural shifts, the recent revisions to the IMDMA sought to do the same. As the article points out, some of the changes simply are linguistic. For instance, the IMDMA no longer refers to a “husband” and a “wife,” given the legality of same-sex marriage. Instead, the law refers to “gender-neutral spouses.”

The changes also eradicated grounds for divorce that appeared antiquated, and lessened the divorce waiting period from two years of separation down to just six months. At the same time, the law sought to address shifts in parenting, eradicating the terms of “custody” and “visitation,” replacing them with “parental responsibilities” and “parenting time,” respectively. And finally, changes to the law provided a formula for spousal maintenance, but only for couples who have a combined income of less than $250,000.

Middle-Class Spouses Tend to See Biggest Effect of IMDMA Revisions

For many middle class families, the article reports, the changes to the law largely have had a positive impact. Since spousal maintenance is now “more predictable” with its formula, “courts are more willing to grant maintenance.” In addition, courts are determining spousal maintenance awards before child support awards, which then allows the court to adjust properly instead of simply considering them together. Moreover, the trend toward awarding spousal maintenance is allowing more middle-class women to get back into the workforce while engaging in “collaborative parenting.” Under older models, mothers often were given the role of custodial parents while fathers paid child support. The law now better reflects a sense of equality among parents.

However, the wealthy and the poor have not been impacted in the same ways by the IMDMA revisions. Married couples with combined incomes of $250,000 or more likely will not see spousal maintenance awards based on any kind of guidelines. More importantly perhaps, though, are poorer families who already are struggling financially. As the article explains, “it’s far more common for poor couples to wrestle with the increased expense of maintaining two households instead of one,” and often “there’s just not enough money to go around.” It is not yet clear whether the law’s new focus on collaborative parenting can impact these families in quite the same way.

Contact a Divorce Lawyer in Chicago

Do you have questions about filing for divorce? An experienced divorce lawyer in Chicago can speak with you today. Contact M. Scott Gordon & Associates to learn more about how we can help with your case.