Although ending a marriage is never easy, understanding the divorce process in Missouri will help make your case go much smoother. Below, you'll find answers to some common questions about getting a divorce in your state.
If you still have questions about the Missouri divorce process, see our Missouri Divorce and Family Law page or contact a local family law attorney for help.
In most jurisdictions, the legal process for ending a marriage is called “divorce.” However, in Missouri the process is called a “dissolution,” because the bonds of matrimony are dissolved.
It’s important that you file your case in the right location. Missouri has a separate Family Court where judges deal exclusively with dissolution proceedings and matters involving children. You will need to file your case in the Family Court located in the county where you or your spouse reside.
In Missouri, there has been a major movement towards alternative dispute resolution especially regarding parenting issues, such as custody and visitation. In almost all cases except where one spouse’s safety is at issue, a judge will order a couple to attend mediation before setting a trial in your case.
Many couples are able to reach dissolution settlement agreements on their own or with the help of a mediator. Couples who are able to resolve all issues in their case can avoid trial.
A judge will review any agreement to ensure that it is fair and not one-sided. If you have children, a judge will make sure that the terms of your settlement reflect your child’s best interests.
To start a dissolution case, you must complete and file a “petition for dissolution,” (legal document) that tells the court who you are, who your spouse is, where you were married, and other facts about your situation. In some counties, the petitioning spouse (spouse filing the case) must also submit a Family Court Information Sheet. The court will issue a “summons” which is a paper telling the other spouse that the case has been started and giving them a copy of the petition.
You’ll need to pay a filing fee when submitting your dissolution documents. This fee varies from county to county is generally set by the local rules of the circuit court in which your case is filed. If you have minor children, then both spouses must prepare and file parenting plans. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.310 (2020).
If you hire an attorney, you should make sure the attorney practices law in the county where you live. Rules can vary from county to county in Missouri. An experienced attorney will know which forms to file and the proper timeframes for filing. You don’t have to hire an attorney in your case. However, if you decide to do your divorce yourself, you’ll be responsible for knowing and following state and county rules for divorce actions.
Yes, Missouri allows “no-fault” divorces. In a no-fault divorce, a spouse will claim only that the marriage is “irretrievably broken” and can’t be saved. This simply means that the couple can't get along anymore and there is no chance for a reconciliation. There is no need for one spouse to blame the other or tell the court what caused the marriage to end.
No-fault divorces are typically faster and less expensive than fault-based divorces because there’s no need to prove one spouse’s fault at trial. Current Missouri law doesn’t permit divorces based on fault grounds.
Missouri has residency requirements for couples seeking to file a dissolution action. The Missouri divorce process requires that you or your spouse live in Missouri for at least 90 days before filing a petition for dissolution. If you try to avoid the residency requirement and file your dissolution action before you’ve lived in the state for 90 days, a judge can throw out your case.
You should file your dissolution action in the county where you or your spouse resides.
The spouse filing for dissolution must serve the petition on the other spouse (the responding spouse or respondent). Once served, the responding spouse must submit a legal document to the court called an "Answer." The answer should admit or deny all facts stated in the petition. The respondent must submit an answer within 30 days after the petition is served.
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 against your spouse granting the dissolution according to the terms you listed in the petition. However, a judge won’t enter a money judgment against a spouse in a default dissolution proceeding. Also, the court is likely to set aside the default if the other spouse can show good cause for the delayed response.
The costs of your case will vary based on your family’s unique circumstances. For example, couples who own a business together, have a complex marital estate, and who can’t agree on child custody may have an expensive case that resolves only after a lengthy trial.
Other couples who own little property together and reach a divorce agreement on their own might have a quick and relatively inexpensive divorce. Also, individuals who handle a divorce themselves can save money on attorney’s fees.
However, if you’re not familiar with the rules governing Missouri dissolution proceedings, or if your spouse has hired an attorney, you should contact a local family law attorney for advice.
If you don't know where your spouse is living, you can file your case in the county where you reside; however, you may need to serve your spouse through alternative means. For example, with court approval, you can serve a spouse with a dissolution petition by publication, certified mail, and in certain cases, through social media.
You can also hire a licensed private investigator to help locate your spouse. Private investigators often have access to databases and records that can be helpful in finding an individual or serving someone who is trying to avoid service.
Once your spouse responds to the petition, you can move forward with requesting temporary divorce orders, attempting settlement, attending mediation, or performing discovery. How your case proceeds will depend on whether children are involved, if one spouse has immediate financial needs, and if you and your spouse want to resolve your divorce amicably.
In general, though, you can expect that the court may issue temporary orders to preserve the status quo while your case is pending. Some courts issue a blanket, form order. Other courts wait for a party to request these orders. Early on in your case either side can begin the discovery process. Each spouse will issue document requests that require the couple to exchange documents and information and to report all income, property, and debts, both marital and separate.
If you and your spouse have children, you’ll need to attend an educational class before your divorce is finalized. A judge may also require you and your spouse to attend mediation before setting a trial date in your case.
In Missouri, divorce courts follow an equitable distribution of property–not a community property (50/50) approach. This means a judge will divide your marital property equitably or fairly, but not necessarily equally.
Also, when making decisions about property division, a judge will take certain factors into consideration, including:
Even in equitable distribution states, a court will generally make an equal division of property, unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.330 (2020).
A judge won’t award alimony in every case. Alimony is referred to as “maintenance” in Missouri. Before a judge will award maintenance in your dissolution case, you’ll need to meet a threshold test. The spouse requesting maintenance must:
Once a judge has decided that maintenance is appropriate in your case, a court will evaluate the following factors to determine how much maintenance is appropriate:
A child’s best interests are central to any custody decision in Missouri. Generally, Missouri law favors a joint custody arrangement where parents share physical and legal custody. “Physical custody” refers to where the child lives and “legal custody” refers to a parent's right to make decisions on a child’s behalf. A joint legal and physical custody arrangement allows parents to share in major decisions and gives each parent time with the child, although it might not necessarily be equal time.
Unless you’re able to work out an agreement with your spouse, both parents should submit a parenting plan to the court setting forth your wishes for custody. A judge will review both proposed plans and then decide what arrangement is in the child's best interest.
If you have any questions about custody in your case, you should consult a local Missouri attorney, skilled and competent in custody matters, to assist in your case.
Missouri has enacted a set of child support guidelines to help judges and parents estimate support awards. Child support in your case will be based largely upon each parent’s income, the child’s needs, and how much time each parent spends with the child under the court’s custody arrangement.
Generally, the custodial parent (parent who primarily lives with the child) will receive child support payments from the noncustodial parent. If you’re wondering how much child support a judge will award in your case, you can use Missouri’s online child support calculator.
One of the most important things to remember about the Missouri divorce process is that it can be an emotionally-charged time. If you share children with your spouse, make sure their best interests are always at the forefront of your mind and your case.
Be clear and proactive about your rights and the rights of your children. Don't be petty, but don't be a doormat. And definitely don't use your children as pawns.