If you're getting divorced and you're envisioning a future filled with courtroom battles and skyrocketing attorney's fees, you may not be seeing the whole picture. If you and your spouse share a desire to avoid conflict and the ability to work together, you may be able to get an "uncontested divorce" and move on with your life more quickly.
This article will explain uncontested divorces in Missouri. If you still have questions after reading this article, you should consult with an experienced family law attorney.
An uncontested divorce means that you and your spouse agree on all the critical issues in your divorce, such as property division, allocation of debts, custody, parenting time (visitation), alimony and child support. You have to have a total agreement. If you don't agree on all the issues, then your case is contested and it will proceed to trial.
There are two basic ways to get an uncontested divorce in Missouri:
If the "petitioner" (the spouse who asks for the divorce) files and serves divorce papers on the "respondent" (the other spouse), and the respondent doesn't file or serve responsive papers, then the respondent is "in default" and the case is set for an uncontested final hearing. The problem with this approach is that in Missouri, you can't get money from the other side by a default judgment.
If the petitioner and respondent are in agreement about the terms of the divorce from the beginning, they can file a petition together (called a "joint petition") and attach a copy of their written agreement. They will bypass the rest of the divorce process and proceed directly to a final hearing in front of a judge, who will sign the divorce order. Joint petition divorce is the quickest option available, but you and your spouse have to agree on everything and be able to work well with each other.
You can only file for divorce in Missouri if you meet the residency requirements. Either you or your spouse has to have been a resident of Missouri for at least 90 days before you file the divorce papers.
You also have to give the court a legal reason (“grounds”) to grant the divorce. Missouri is a no-fault state, which means that the only ground you can cite is that your marriage is "irretrievably broken" (meaning, so badly damaged that it can't be saved). In other words, no one is to blame, and no one has to sling mud in a courtroom about the cause of the divorce.
Before you start working on your paperwork, you'll need to understand how the court system works.
The entry-level trial courts in Missouri are called circuit courts. Every county has a court, and these courts are divided into 45 separate judicial circuits. Different circuits have different divisions, like criminal, family, or probate. You will need to start your divorce by filing your papers in the correct circuit court. If your circuit court has a family division, that's where your case will be handled. File your papers in the county where you live or where your spouse lives.
You’re responsible for knowing where to file your papers. If you file in the wrong place, your case could be tossed out or transferred, and you might have to start over. The Missouri Judicial Branch has a website you can use to locate the correct court depending on your location.
There are very detailed laws and instructions for getting divorced in Missouri, and you must follow them exactly. In addition, you will have to fill out many divorce-related forms in your case. Take your time and work carefully. Type everything on a computer print neatly. If you rush through the papers and make mistakes, the judge may have questions or concerns about your paperwork and might call you to appear in court for a final hearing to address the problems.
The divorce process starts when the petitioner (or co-petitioners, if both spouses are filing a joint petition) completes the correct set of forms. (See Official Divorce Forms (Petitioner).) The forms can be obtained online or through the clerk of court at your courthouse. Make sure you use the right forms. Don't be afraid to ask the clerks questions, but do understand that they aren't able to give you legal advice.
There are a few good online resources that may provided additional information including, the Missouri Judicial Branch: Self-Representation and Access to Family Courts site and Legal Services of Missouri (legal aid and information).
The petitioner and co-petitioners will need to prepare a petition (the document that officially starts the divorce) and a parenting plan (if the couple has underage children). In some locations, more documents—like a family court information sheet—might be required. Furthermore, if the spouses have children, additional documents, such as child support worksheets, will be necessary.
The petitioner will also have to obtain a summons from the clerk of court. Finally, the petitioner will have to make disclosures about income, expenses, assets, and debts, and exchange them with the respondent. This is mandatory.
The petitioner or co-petitioners should bring the papers to the courthouse for filing. After a joint petition and supporting written agreement is filed, the clerk will give the co-petitioners a final hearing date without need of service, preliminary hearings, etc.
In all cases, the court clerk will issue a case number and charge a filing fee. If you can't afford the fee, don't panic. You can ask the clerk for a fee waiver form, which you'll use to provide your financial information. If a judge agrees that you're indigent (below the poverty line), the judge will sign an order eliminating all fees in your case.
Now, in the case of a regular, non-joint petition divorce, the papers have to be served on the respondent. This means that the petitioner has to get a copy of the forms to the respondent by official means, like U.S. Mail or by having a law enforcement officer or professional process server hand over the documents. The petitioner also has to obtain proof of service, meaning either the respondent or the process server has to sign a document admitting that service happened. The petitioner then files the proof of service with the clerk.
Following all of this, the respondent has the opportunity to file and serve an answer to the petition. If the respondent doesn't do this, the respondent is in default and the case will be set for a final hearing. There are a number of reasons why the respondent might not file an answer. It could be simple negligence, or it could be because the spouses talked and agreed on the terms of the divorce after the petition was served.
However, there is a 30-day waiting period in Missouri. This means that even if you and your spouse were co-petitioners, the court can't grant a divorce until at least 30 days after the petition is filed. This waiting period can be very helpful if you need to finish settling your regular, non-joint petition divorce case. If you reach an agreement, you can memorialize it in writing and submit it to the judge at the final hearing.
At the final hearing, the judge will ask the petitioner or co-petitioners to give some very brief testimony. If all the papers are in order and the agreement is fair, the judge will sign the order.
Missouri Revised Statutes, Title XXX (Domestic Relations), Chapter 452 (Divorce and Alimony)