Child custody decisions in Missouri are made according to the child's best interests, and the procedure for both mothers and fathers who seek custody is the same. However, fathers cannot seek custody until they have proven paternity of the child; there is some evidence that fathers may have to work harder than mothers to get custody of their children. As awareness grows that children need both parents, however, more fathers are obtaining custody of their children.
Missouri law requires that fathers be recognized as the child's legal father before seeking custody. Fathers who were married to the child's mother at the time of the child's birth are automatically recognized as the father. Fathers who were not married to the child's mother must establish legal paternity. The father and mother may sign a joint stipulation to paternity, and they may submit it to the family division of the circuit court, which has jurisdiction over child custody matters. The father may also undergo a paternity test and petition the court, via a petition to establish paternity, to establish him as the child's legal father. These petitions are available in the family court clerk's office, and you should file your petition in the county in which the child resides. A judge will issue a final order declaring the father the legal father; when this happens, the father may be obligated to pay child support, and he may be entitled to custody or visitation.
You may request custody of your child as part of a petition for divorce. This petition is known as a petition for divorce with minor children. You may also petition the court for custody separate from a divorce by filing a petition for child custody in the family division of the circuit court in the county in which the child resides. If there is already a custody order in your case, you must demonstrate that there has been a change in the child's circumstances that warrant a change in custody. This is accomplished by filing a petition for modification in visitation or petition for child custody in the family court. Missouri law requires that all custody petitions have a parenting plan attached. A parenting plan outlines legal custody, which governs who makes decisions regarding the child and physical custody, which addresses with whom the child will live. Parenting plans also provide information about visitation and holiday schedules. The clerk of court can give you a blank parenting plan or you may write one yourself.
Child's Best Interests
Custody decisions are made according to the child's best interests, and judges may consider a number of factors, including each parent's willingness to foster the child's relationship with the other parent and with siblings, the attachment the child has to each parent and the environment provided by each parent. There is a presumption that a parent who has been convicted of a crime should not be the child's custodial parent, but parents can rebut this presumption by demonstrating why the crime is irrelevant. While Missouri law is gender neutral, some parents feel that the law may be biased against fathers. Thus, it's important for fathers to be prepared to demonstrate that they are as competent at parenting as the mother.
The judge may order that you attend mediation prior to hearing the case. If you are unable to reach a settlement, the judge will schedule a hearing. At this hearing, you may call witnesses and submit evidence that the custody arrangement you prefer is in your child's best interests. This might include evidence that the child is thriving under your care, psychiatric records demonstrating problems caused by the other parent's parenting, or witnesses who can testify to your parenting competence. Because Missouri law has a strong presumption in favor of allowing both parents to continue contact with the child, it is wise to suggest visitation for the other parent if you are seeking full custody.