Below, you'll find answers to some common questions about getting a divorce in Missouri. For more information on Missouri family law, see our Missouri Divorce and Family Law page. You can find all of our articles on getting a divorce in our Divorce Process area.
What is a "dissolution of marriage"?
In most jurisdictions, the legal mechanism for ending a marriage is called divorce. In Missouri, it is called dissolution, because the bonds of matrimony are dissolved. Missouri is a no-fault divorce state. If one party testifies that the marriage is irretrievably broken and there is no likelihood that it can be preserved, the spouses will get their dissolution and the marriage will be legally over. The entry of an order dissolving the marriage is final when it is entered, subject to the right to appeal. However, if the appeal does not challenge the finding that the marriage is irretrievably broken, the spouses are divorced and free to behave as single people, including by remarrying.
Is there anything I should know before filing for dissolution of marriage?
First and foremost, you should understand that when the spouses agree and get along, the road is easy; when they disagree and quarrel, the road is long, hard and expensive. Missouri has a separate Family Court, with judges who see dissolution proceedings day in and day out and who closely scrutinize any proceeding involving children. Rigorous standards are set and followed for determining who gets the kids, where, when, how, and with what restrictions.
Property division is not 50/50 in Missouri by statute, but courts will generally make a 50/50 division unless there are compelling reasons not to do that. If you own valuable property -- a house, stocks, bonds, money market accounts -- each spouse will likely get back what he or she contributed to the purchase of the property, plus half of the increase in value since it was purchased. If you are planning on fighting for something other than a 50/50 split of property, subtract out several thousands of dollars in attorneys fees from your share and decide whether winning will be worth the cost.
In Missouri, there has been a major movement towards alternative dispute resolution regarding parenting issues, such as custody and visitation. You will have to go to mediation if you cannot agree on a parenting plan; if the court thinks it is necessary or will be helpful, you will have to continue mediating separate issues. If you quarrel over parenting issues, a guardian ad litem will be appointed for your child or children. The parties share the cost of all these extra services, so you are well advised to try to agree from the start or you will end up spending thousands of dollars on professionals who will then make recommendations to the court about how your children should spend their lives. Meanwhile, your children will become pawns in your fight, and might end up hating both of you. Pick your fights carefully.
How do I start my case to get a dissolution of marriage?
To start a dissolution case, you must:
- File a petition, which is the initial pleading that tells the court who you are, who your spouse is, where you were married, and other facts about your situation. You must include all of the information required by statute (Section 452.310.2).
- File a parenting plan, if you have minor children. (Section 452.310.8.)
- File a Family Court Information Sheet, in some counties.
- Cause the court to issue a summons (a paper telling the other party that the case has been started and giving them a copy of the petition).
- Pay a filing fee, which is generally set by the local rules of the circuit court in which your case is filed.
If you hire an attorney, make sure the attorney practices in the county where you live. That county's court rules will dictate some of the proceedings, and an experienced attorney will know which forms to file by when. If you decide not to hire an attorney, you will be responsible for knowing and following state and county rules for divorce actions.
Do I have to have "cause" or "grounds" for getting a dissolution?
Not in Missouri. This is a no-fault divorce state. A dissolution can be granted if the marriage is irretrievably broken and there is no reasonable likelihood that the marriage can be preserved. As a practical matter, if one spouse testifies to these two things, the dissolution will be granted.
Do I have to be a resident of the state of Missouri to file for a dissolution of my marriage in this state?
You or your spouse must have been a resident of the state of Missouri for ninety days before a petition for the dissolution of your marriage can be filed. This is the "residency requirement".
Where do I file my case?
In the county where you reside or the county where your spouse resides.
What does the other person do when someone files a "petition for dissolution"?
The other spouse files a legal document called an "answer". It must admit or deny the facts stated in the petition. The answer must be filed within 30 days after the petition is served.
What if the other person doesn't file an answer?
If the other spouse doesn't file an answer, he or she is technically in default. This means that the court could enter a default judgment. However, you can't get a money judgment against a person in default. Also, the court is likely to set aside the default if the other person requests it.
How do I file my petition if I can't find my spouse?
If you don't know where your spouse is, you can do one of several things:
- You can serve your petition by publication. This is an acceptable way to technically achieve service, but you can't do much except actually get divorced.
- You can hire a private investigator, especially if your spouse is still in the area.
- You can run a records check online, or have your lawyer or PI do so.
What happens after my spouse files an answer?
It depends on which county has your case, whether there are children, what kind of debts and property you have, and so forth.
In general, though, you can expect the following:
- The court may issue temporary orders to preserve the status quo while the case is pending. Some courts issue a blanket, form order. Other courts wait for a party to request these orders.
- Paperwork discovery is exchanged, usually on pre-printed forms that require you to report all of your income, property, and debts, both marital and non-marital.
- You may have to attend an educational class if you have minor children.
- You will also have to attend mediation if you have minor children.
- When the other side has answered (or 30 days from the date of service has passed) you can get a court date. As with everything, local rules dictate exactly how you get a court date. In bigger counties, you get a "date to set a date". That is, the first trial date you get is just a "docket", and when the lawyers appear, the court gets a 'status report' and if the case is ready to try, the judge gives them a trial date.
- After the two sides exchange information about their debts, assets, income, and property, the lawyers should talk to each other and decide whether or not the case can be settled. If it can, one side will draft a proposed agreement and send it to the other side to review.
What is the difference between marital property and non-marital property?
Marital property is any property acquired during the marriage, unless it fits into one of the categories of non-marital property, below.
Non-marital property includes:
- property either spouse owned before the marriage (unless the property was "dedicated" to the marriage), and
- property that either spouse received by gift or inheritance, in exchange for non-marital property, or with the proceeds of selling non-marital property.
As noted, "non-marital" property can become marital property if the owner treats it as such, by:
- using it as marital property (for example, the home where the couple lives)
- using marital funds to improve the property, or
- pledging the non-marital property for a marital debt
Do we split our property 50/50?
That is not the way our statutes read in Missouri. Here, the property is split on an equitable (fair) basis. The court takes certain factors into consideration, including:
- each spouse's economic circumstances
- the contribution of each spouse to acquisition of property
- the value of each person's nonmarital property
- the conduct of the parties (what we used to call "grounds for divorce"), and
- where the children will live (often, the person who gets the kids also gets the house)
How can I protect property I don't want to lose, like my pension?
Any property that you want to keep can be valued and factored into the property distribution: The value of the property will be offset against your "equitable" share of the property. Also, it is possible that only part of your pension is marital property, if you earned part of it before you were married. In the case of a pension, the court will often use an equation to figure out what part of it is marital property, and then let you set off that amount against your share of the marital property.
How am I going to pay my bills while the case is pending -- and after?
Not so long ago, husbands were routinely ordered to pay alimony. These days, what we used to call "alimony" is now called "maintenance" in Missouri, and it is not as easy to get.
Now, there is a threshold test that you have to meet to get maintenance. You must:
- lack sufficient property, including marital property given to you in the dissolution, to provide for your needs, and
- be unable to support yourself through a job or because you are the custodian of a child whose condition or circumstances make it inappropriate for you to work.
If you pass that test, then the court considers ten factors to decide on the amount of maintenance:
- the financial resources of person asking for maintenance
- the time needed to for the person seeking maintenance to get the education or training necessary to get a job
- the relative earning power of each person
- the standard of living during marriage
- each person's debts and assets (including those awarded to each in the divorce)
- how long the marriage lasted
- the age and physical and emotional condition of each person
- whether the paying spouse can meet his or her own needs while paying maintenance
- the conduct of each spouse during marriage, and
- any other relevant facts (for example, if one spouse put the other through school or supported the other).
What will happen to the children?
Missouri law favors joint custody, in which the parents share majob decisions and each has significant (although not necessary equal) time with the child.
There is a long, complex, and important scheme for determining child custody in Missouri, set forth in Section 452.330. You would be wise to have a local Missouri attorney, skilled and competent in custody matters, to assist you in developing and advocating a parenting plan that the judge assigned to your case will accept.
For more information on custody decisions, see Child Custody in Missouri: The Best Interests of the Child.
What about child support?
Child support is calculated through the use of a mathematical equation that takes into account the parents' income, how much time each parent spends with the child, the child's needs, and other factors. Like most states, Missouri has an online child support calculator that will help you figure out how much you can expect to pay or receive.
What advice would you give someone filing for divorce?
One of the most important things to remember about dissolution of marriage is that you once loved this person, and, if you have children, you certainly love the children. But do not let the fact that you once loved them excuse abuse, neglect, or interference with your role as an active parent. Be clear and proactive about your rights and the rights of the child. Don't be petty, but don't be a doormat. And don't use your children as pawns.