If you're getting divorced and you're envisioning a future filled with courtroom battles and sky-high attorney's fees, you may not be seeing the whole picture. You and your spouse can obtain a more peaceful and cheaper divorce, called a “poor man’s divorce” or “uncontested divorce,” if you share a desire to avoid conflict and are willing work together. An uncontested divorce is less expensive and will allow you to move on with your life more quickly than a traditional divorce.
This article explains the process to obtain an uncontested divorce in Missouri. If you still have questions after reading this article, you should consult with an experienced family law attorney in your area.
An uncontested divorce in Missouri is a divorce where you and your spouse agree on all the critical issues in your case, such as property division, allocation of debts, custody, parenting time (visitation), alimony and child support. To obtain an uncontested divorce in Missouri, you and your spouse have to be in total agreement on all issues in your case. If you don't agree on all the issues, then your case is a contested divorce and will need to proceed to trial.
There are two basic ways to get an uncontested divorce in Missouri:
Once a "petitioner" (the spouse who asks for the divorce) files and serves divorce papers on the "respondent" (the other spouse), the respondent has a set amount of time in which he or she must file a responsive pleading like an “answer.” If the respondent doesn't file responsive papers, then the respondent is "in default" and your case will be set for an uncontested final hearing. Even if your spouse fails to show up to the final hearing, you can obtain a divorce through a default proceeding.
Joint Petition for Divorce
Spouses who are in agreement about the terms of their divorce can file a petition together (called a "Joint Petition") and attach a copy of their written agreement. A Joint Petition allows a couple to bypass the rest of the divorce process and proceed directly to a final hearing in front of a judge. A judge will approve a couple’s agreement as long as it serves both spouses' needs and best interests of any children involved. A Joint Petition Divorce is the quickest option available, but you and your spouse have to agree on everything from the outset and must work with each other through the process.
You can only file for divorce in Missouri if you meet the residency requirements. Either you or your spouse must 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. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.305 (2020).
Before you start working on your paperwork, you'll need to understand how the Missouri 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 can access online divorce forms in Missouri for filing with your local court.
Completing Online Divorce Forms in Missouri
There are very detailed laws and instructions for getting divorced in Missouri, and you must follow them exactly. You’ll have to fill out several 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. If the mistakes are serious enough, they could impact your divorce.
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 your local court clerk. It’s important that you use the right forms. Although you can ask the court clerks basic questions, a clerk can’t give you legal advice.
The petitioner and co-petitioners will need to prepare a petition (the document that officially starts the divorce), summons, financial disclosures, 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.
Filing and Serving Your Forms
The petitioner or co-petitioners should bring the papers to the courthouse for filing. 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 court locator you can use to locate the correct court based on your location.
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.
Once a petition and summons have been filed and properly served, the respondent generally has a 20 to 30-day window in which to file 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.
If the respondent files an answer agreeing to everything in the divorce petition, there is a still a 30-day waiting period before your divorce can be granted in Missouri. This means that even if you and your spouse were co-petitioners, the court won’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 divorce order.
For more information about handling a divorce on your own, check out the Missouri Judicial Branch: Self-Representation and Access to Family Courts website. If you can’t pay for an attorney but need assistance in your case, contact Legal Services of Missouri (legal aid and information) for more information and to see if you qualify.