If spouses have minor children and wish to divorce, they will need to address custody and child support issues before the divorce is finalized. In Missouri, if spouses have an amicable relationship, they may be able to resolve these issues without court interference. However, if agreements cannot be reached, a judge will need to make any custody and support determinations according to Missouri law.
Parents are permitted to reach their own agreement regarding custody and visitation, which Missouri courts generally prefer. Once an arrangement is reached, Missouri law requires that spouses submit a parenting plan to the court for approval. This plan must include the custody arrangement, each parent's decision-making authority as to the child's day-to-day care, a visitation schedule and an allocation of each parent's responsibility for the child's expenses.
Types of Custody
When parents cannot reach an agreement acceptable to the court, a Missouri judge will decide custody. There are two types of custody -- physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody refers to the person with whom the child lives, while legal custody grants decision-making authority with regard to the child's upbringing, including school, religion, education and medical care. The court can award the parents joint physical and legal custody, which means the child would reside with each parent for at least part of the year and the parents must confer on all decisions relating to the child. Another option is sole custody. In Missouri, this means the child would reside exclusively with one parent and that parent is the only one authorized to make decisions regarding the child's care. The other parent would be entitled to visitation.
Best Interests of the Child
A Missouri court decides custody in accordance with the "best interests of the child" standard set forth in the Missouri Revised Statutes. These are the only factors considered and despite common misconceptions, gender is not a factor. Parents have an equal right to custody in Missouri. The court considers each parent's ability to provide a stable home and care for the child, child's relationship with each parent, child's preference, whether either parent will interfere in the child's relationship with the other parent, whether there are any allegations of abuse and whether either parent plans to relocate with the child.
When one parent is granted sole physical custody, a Missouri court will grant liberal visitation to the other parent. This ensures a continuous and meaningful relationship with both parents. Generally, weekly visitation, alternating holidays and at least part of the summer is standard, especially if the parents reside within a reasonable distance from one another. If there are abuse allegations or other issues, including drug and alcohol abuse, the court may still award visitation, though it will likely be supervised. Additionally, there are circumstances where a court will not grant any visitation rights, for example, if the parent is a convicted sex offender. Last, visitation and child support are separate entities. A parent cannot withhold visitation if child support is not paid. Likewise, a parent cannot withhold child support if the other parent is preventing visitation. Both issues are resolved separately by a Missouri court.
The last issue addressed in a Missouri divorce involving children is child support. Generally, the non-custodial parent will be required to pay child support in accordance with his income, number of children that require support and amount of time the owing parent has custody of or visitation with the children. To determine the appropriate amount for child support, Missouri law requires the court to consider the value of each parent's income and assets, whether the child has an income or significant assets of her own, any educational expenses and childcare expenses incurred when the custodial parent is at work. Child support is generally owed until age 18, although it can be extended if the child has any mental or physical handicaps. Additionally, child support will terminate if the child marries, dies, enters the military or becomes self-supporting before age 18.