One of the most critical factors in any divorce is determining care, custody, and financial support for the children of the divorcing couple. In Missouri, the family court has a strict duty to ensure the safety of children involved in a divorce and to rule in favor of preserving their best interests. If you are a parent considering divorce in Columbia, MO, it’s helpful to understand the state’s laws surrounding child custody and what to expect from a child custody determination.

An experienced Columbia, MO family law attorney is one of the best available resources for anyone facing a child custody determination. Regardless of whether you intend to pursue divorce litigation or alternative dispute resolution in your divorce case, the Columbia, MO family court system will ultimately need to review and approve the plan for care and custody of your children to finalize your divorce. Learn what to expect when it comes to these determinations and what you can do to preserve your parental rights.

Litigating Child Custody in Missouri

The most difficult possible path through divorce is litigation. This process unfolds like any other civil case. Both spouses should expect to sit through depositions and cross-examinations, and both have the right to provide evidence and call witnesses. Divorce litigation may require months of court proceedings or even years for highly complex cases.

When child custody is disputed in divorce litigation, the judge overseeing the case has a duty to ensure their ruling aligns with the child’s best interests and Missouri state law. This means the judge must evaluate many different factors to determine what sort of custody and support arrangement would be best for the children involved in the case, including:

  • The incomes of both parents.
  • The availability and work schedules of the parents.
  • The parents’ proposed living arrangements following divorce.
  • The children’s preferences.
  • Past criminal behaviors of either parent. A history of domestic violence will prove especially problematic for anyone trying to secure custody in a Missouri divorce.
  • Character references from extended family members, friends, neighbors, and any other parties able to provide their interpretations of the parents’ fitness for custody.
  • The medical needs of the children and the proximity of their parents’ living arrangements to medical treatment facilities.

Ultimately, a Missouri family court judge must weigh a child custody and support determination very carefully and consider many different factors to reach an acceptable conclusion.

Physical Custody Vs. Legal Custody

When it comes to child custody, there are actually two main types of custody that are determined in a divorce between parents. First, the court must determine legal custody, or the ability to take formal responsibility for a child and make major decisions on their behalf. Parents must prove they are competent, reliable, and capable to handle this responsibility if they wish to argue for legal custody.

Physical custody, on the other hand, simply refers to where the children live and spend their time. It’s possible for a child custody determination to end with one parent securing full legal custody and the other only obtaining limited visitation rights. It is also possible for divorcing parents to evenly split physical and legal custody, requiring both parents to collaborate on major decisions for their children and equally provide for their everyday needs.

Facing a custody determination that is entirely out of your hands can be incredibly difficult for any parent. It’s often necessary for parents to accept that they must compromise to be active parts of their children’s lives and to maintain positive relationships with their children.

Negotiating Child Custody in Missouri

The vast majority of divorce cases are not tried in court but rather end in private settlement negotiations. It’s possible to mediate a divorce to avoid the time and expense required of divorce litigation, providing both divorcing spouses with a more expedient end to their marriage and substantial savings. While a divorcing couple may negotiate many factors in their divorce, some subjects require court approval. It may  not be possible for a divorcing couple to solidly negotiate child custody and child support during divorce mediation, but they can negotiate a parenting plan and submit it to a Columbia, MO family court judge for approval

When a judge reviews a mediated parenting plan, they may accept it as-is if the proposed plan aligns with state laws and ensures protection of the children’s best interests. It is also possible for the judge to reject the proposal or parts of the proposal, requiring the couple to either renegotiate their proposed terms or litigate the matter.

Developing a parenting plan requires careful consideration of the children’s needs, everyday routines, and each parent’s suitability for physical and legal custody. If the divorcing parents rely on their attorneys for guidance and are willing to compromise, everything can be more streamlined. It is possible to privately draft a parenting plan fit for approval from the Columbia, MO family court.

Penalties for Child Custody Violations in Missouri

If a parent obligated to a child custody and support agreement violates the terms of this agreement in any way, at the very least, they should expect to face contempt of court. It is very likely that a deliberate violation of a child custody agreement will lead to significant legal penalties, including loss of custody rights, increased child support obligation, fines, and even incarceration. If you believe your ex has violated the terms of your child custody arrangement and/or put your children at risk, contact the police immediately to report the situation and consult with your Columbia, MO divorce attorney about the best next steps to take.

It’s possible to revisit a child custody determination on many different grounds, including a custody agreement violation. Family law allows divorced parents to file post-judgment modifications to change child custody and child support terms as their needs change or in light of new events. If a divorced parent violates their child custody agreement, it would be very easy for the other parent to file a post-judgment motion to have the parent in violation formally penalized for their actions.

It’s natural to have lots of questions when it comes to the future care and custody of your children during a divorce. If you are ready to speak with an experienced attorney about your unique child custody case, do not delay in seeking legal counsel from a reputable Columbia, MO family law attorney for specific answers to your questions.