Child Custody and Relocation Laws in Missouri

Learn how Missouri courts handle custody and visitation disputes when a parent asks to relocate with underage children.

Breaking up is hard to do, but for parents, the aftermath can be even worse. When two parents end their relationship, they are no longer free to take their children along when they move away to a new location to further their career or pursue a new love interest. Instead, they have to clear a number of legal hurdles.

What happens if a parent wants to relocate with the children?

Missouri has very specific laws about whether and how a parent can move away with children. "Relocation" is defined as a change in the child's principal (main) residence for 90 days or more. If the child moves for less than 90 days, that's only considered a temporary change and the relocation laws don't apply.

If a parent wants to move away and take the children, that parent first has to provide the non-moving parent, and any other person who might have custody and visitation rights (for example, if there's a court order that gives visitation to a grandparent or other family member) with a written notice of intent to move. The notice has to be provided at least 60 days before the proposed move happens, although if there are "exigent" (emergency) circumstances, the relocating parent can ask a court to shorten the 60 day requirement.

The notice has to be physically handed to the non-relocating parent ("personal service") or sent by certified mail. It must include all of the following information:

  • the intended new address, including a specific address and mailing address
  • if the specific address isn't known yet, the new city and state
  • the new home telephone number, if known
  • the date of the intended move
  • a brief statement explaining the reasons for moving the child, and
  • a proposal for a revised custody and visitation schedule.

If the information that's included in the notice changes, the relocating parent has to update the notice as soon as possible.

If the moving parent believes the other parent will be angered by the notice and will endanger the child or the relocating parent, the relocating parent should give the notice to the court. The court will then take measures to protect the relocating parent and child's safety.

There are serious repercussions if the notice doesn't conform to all legal requirements. If the relocating parent fails to provide adequate notice, then the court may consider that failure to:

  • be a factor in deciding whether to modify custody and visitation
  • be a basis for ordering the return of the child, if the child is moved without notice, and
  • constitute good cause to order the relocating parent to pay the attorneys' fees and other costs incurred by the non-relocating parent.

If the non-relocating parent receives the notice and agrees to the move, the parents have to submit written terms of their agreement to the court by completing an affidavit (a sworn statement) signed by both parents. The affidavit must set out the new custody and visitation schedule. If everything is in order, a judge will review the affidavit and make it into a court order without anyone having to come to court.

If the non-relocating parent gets the notice and doesn't agree with the move, that parent has 30 days to file a motion in court asking a judge to block the move. The motion has to include an affidavit explaining why the court should deny the request. The relocating parent then has 14 days to file a counter-affidavit explaining why the move should be approved and detailing a new custody and visitation plan.

Don't move away with your kids when your ex disagrees and the court hasn't ruled yet. Consult a lawyer first. If you leave before getting the court's permission, the judge can order you to return the child and possibly punish you in other ways too.

How do judges decide whether to allow relocation?

A parent who wishes to move away with a child has to prove the following three things.

First, the relocating parent must prove that the relocation is being sought in good faith. This means that the move is for legitimate reasons and is not being made to interfere with the non-relocating parent's custody and visitation.

Second, the relocating parent has to show compliance with all notice requirements.

Third, the Missouri family courts require any relocation to serve the best interests of a child. If the parent who wants to relocate can't prove that the move is what's best for the child, the judge won't allow it. To decide whether a move is actually in the child's best interests, the court must consider all of the following factors:

  • the parents' wishes
  • the custody and visitation plans submitted by each parent
  • the child's need for a frequent, continuing, and meaningful relationship with both parents
  • each parent's willingness and ability to actively perform parental functions
  • the interaction and interrelationship of the child with parents, siblings, and any other person who plays a major part in the child's life
  • how well the child is adjusted to home, school, and community
  • the mental and physical health of everyone involved in the case
  • whether there's any history of abuse
  • whether either parent intends to relocate the child, and
  • the child's wishes, if the child is old enough to express a rational opinion.

If a parent asks to relocate after the first custody and visitation order has been issued, the court must find that there's been a change in the circumstances in the child's or relocating parent's lives and that modification is necessary to serve the child's best interests.

If the parents can't agree about relocation, a judge will schedule a hearing in order to listen to testimony and consider evidence about the lives of the parents and the child. Afterward, the court will apply the law to the case to reach a decision about whether to allow the move and will issue a formal order either maintaining or adjusting the custodial arrangement.

How have Missouri courts decided relocation cases in the past?

In a recent and legally significant decision, the Missouri Court of Appeals took up a paternity case where the mother and father were awarded joint custody, but the child mainly lived with the mother and the father had visitation. Several years later, the mother notified the father that she wanted to move to another Missouri city and take the child with her. The father took the mother to court to block the move, but in the meantime, the mother moved away with the child without permission and enrolled her in a new school district. The family court judge blocked the move because the mother failed to properly notify the father or to consult with him about major decisions, like enrolling the child in another school district. The family court judge also ordered the mother to return the child. Later, the Court of Appeals upheld the family court's decision, noting that the mother had failed to comply with statutory notice requirements and that the family court had carefully considered testimony and evidence establishing that a move was not in the child's best interests.

Next steps?

If you or your ex have custody or visitation rights and want to relocate with your children, you should contact an experienced Missouri family law attorney to assess your situation, advise you about your rights and obligations, and represent you in court.

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