Child Custody in Missouri: The Best Interests of the Child

Learn how child custody is determined in Missouri, how you can modify custody orders, and more.

By , Retired Judge

In Missouri, child custody laws changed in 2018. The purpose was to do away with the winner-take-all mentality that plagued custody cases for years. As in many other states, the Missouri legislature realized that this type of thinking was not only harmful to the children, but to the parents as well.

It's now the public policy in Missouri that the "best interests of the child"—the standard used by judges to make custody decisions—is best served through frequent, continuing, and meaningful contact with both parents after the parents have separated or divorced. The law also encourages parents to participate in decisions affecting their children's health, education, and welfare. (Missouri Revised Statutes - Title XXX - §452.375 (4).)

Types of Child Custody in Missouri

There are fairly standard custody options in Missouri, rooted in the concepts of "legal custody" and "physical custody." Legal custody relates to making decisions regarding the child's upbringing, such as where the child will go to school, religious affiliations, and non-emergency medical care. Physical custody refers to where the child will live.

Legal custody and physical custody can be broken down into "joint" custody and "sole" custody.

"Joint legal custody" gives both parents a say in the decision-making process, and requires the parents to consult with each other. "Sole legal custody" means that only one parent has authority to make the major decisions in a child's life.

"Joint physical custody" means the child resides with each parent for certain periods, which can range from a few days a week to literally half-a-year with each parent. With "sole physical custody", the child lives with one parent. (Missouri Revised Statutes - Title XXX - §452.375 (1).)

If you're interested in how to get full custody in Missouri, you should realize that "full custody" isn't a term you'll find in the custody-definition statute. But it usually refers to one parent having sole legal and physical custody of the children. This is not something favored by the courts, because it runs counter to the goal of fostering both parents' involvement with the children. So in order to get full custody, you'd likely have to prove that the other parent is unfit, for reasons such as untreated drug addiction, a history of abuse, or some other condition that would pose harm to the child.

For information on how to file for custody in Missouri, you can check the Missouri Courts website.

Missouri Child Custody Guidelines: The "Best Interests of the Child."

Courts prefer to have parents work out custody arrangements. They can do this themselves, or with the aid of their attorneys or a qualified mediator. The law obligates parents to submit a parenting plan to the court, either individually or jointly. (Missouri Revised Statutes - Title XXX - §452.310 (8).)

If the parents can't come to an acceptable agreement, then the courts will step in and make the decision for them. There isn't a cookie-cutter template for determining the best interests of the child. That's because each case has its own particular set of facts. What Missouri law does, however, is provide guidelines for a judge to follow—a list of factors to consider when evaluating a case. Some of these factors are:

  • each parent's wishes as to custody
  • the child's need for a meaningful relationship with both parents
  • each parent's ability and willingness to perform their functions as mother or father for the child's needs
  • the child's interaction and relationship with parents, siblings, and anyone else who affects the child's best interest
  • which parent is more likely to allow the child frequent, continuing, and meaningful contact with the other parent
  • the child's adjustment to home, school, and community
  • the mental and physical health of all individuals involved
  • either parent's history of domestic violence
  • either parent's plans to relocate the child, and
  • the child's wishes for custody. (Missouri Revised Statutes - Title XXX - §452.375 (2).)

You can see from the above list that it's not just the parents' relationship with the child that's important. Cooperation between the parents is crucial in fostering a child's emotional and physical health.

Note also that the law provides that the court can't give custody preference to either parent because of that parent's age, sex, or financial status, nor because of the child's age or sex. (Missouri Revised Statutes - Title XXX - §452.375 (8).)

Does a Child Have a Say in Determining Custody in Missouri?

That depends. The last item in the custody guidelines references the child's wishes. But Missouri law doesn't specify an age when the court must consider those wishes. Generally, an older child's preference will carry more weight than a younger child's. But that's not a hard-and-fast rule, because no two children are exactly alike. It's conceivable that a 12-year-old could be more mature than a 14-year-old. So in making a determination, a judge will gauge a child's ability to make a sound judgment.

The judge will also want to ensure that the child's preference isn't the result of undue influence, such as a parent bad-mouthing the other, or attempting to bribe the child with promises of gifts.

Can You Change a Custody Order?

Yes. But because courts realize that stability is critical for children, if you'd like to alter your current order you'll need to convince the court that the change is necessary to serve the child's best interest.

In Missouri, parents looking to change a custody order must show that there's been a change either in their circumstances or the child's since the last order. This has to be based on facts that have arisen since that order was entered, or that were unknown to the court at that time. (Missouri Revised Statutes - Title XXX - §452.410.) An example might be where one parent becomes disabled, and as a result can't comply with the current order's parenting plan.

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