The advantage of a marital settlement agreement is that it allows you to tailor your divorce to the needs and concerns of your family. Otherwise, a judge -- who does not know the dynamics of your family -- will make a decision for you at trial, based on state law. In Missouri, judges prefer that divorcing couples settle issues on their own terms. However, your settlement -- called a Marital Settlement and Separation Agreement in Missouri -- must comprehensively address every issue. Otherwise, you’ll still end up in trial.
Missouri is an equitable distribution state so if you and your spouse can’t reach an agreement regarding how to divide your marital property, there’s no guarantee each of you will receive half. Missouri allows judges to consider several factors when dividing property between divorcing spouses, including marital misconduct. If you reach your own decision, these factors don't come into play. The judge will most likely approve your terms, unless they're grossly unfair to one spouse. If you have your assets valued and appraised before you sit down at the negotiating table, this removes one issue from debate -- how much each asset is worth.
The Missouri Statutes don’t specifically address the issue of dividing marital debts in divorce, so technically, you might be able to avoid negotiating this aspect. It can come down to the opinion of the judge charged with signing off on your agreement and whether he thinks you should have addressed your outstanding debts. The statutes are “silent,” meaning they don’t mention debts at all. This doesn’t preclude judges from ordering their payment at trial or requiring you to resolve them before allowing you to divorce. However, your settlement agreement is not binding on your creditors. No matter which of you assumes responsibility for a joint debt, the creditor can pursue both of you for payment if you fail to keep the account current post-divorce.
When you file for divorce in Missouri, you and your spouse are both required to submit a proposed parenting plan in addition to your petition for dissolution of the marriage. When negotiating custody and visitation terms, you can work from the suggestions for custody and visitation that each of you made in your respective plans. If a judge has to decide custody for you, Missouri allows him to consider issues of domestic violence, which parent has most facilitated contact between the children and their other parent, and even the wishes of the children.
Child support is not really open to negotiation, but you’ll have to include a figure in your settlement before a judge will approve the agreement. Missouri calculates child support based on the income shares model. Each parent contributes a percentage of a monthly support figure determined by the state according to its child support guidelines, proportionate to the percentage each contributes to their joint income. You can access a child support worksheet from the Missouri Courts website and calculate what your support obligation should be according to your incomes and how many children you have.
You can also address spousal maintenance or alimony in your settlement agreement. If you decide alimony is appropriate, you might want to include a provision that either of you can modify the amount in the future if circumstances change. Otherwise, standard language contained elsewhere in your agreement might indicate that alimony is non-modifiable, even if this is not what you intend. This is especially true if you purchase a pre-printed format for a marital agreement and fill in the details of your settlement. If you don't override the "legalese" often contained in these agreements, the receiving spouse could hit the lottery and the other spouse would still have to pay toward her support.
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