Divorce involves a wide variety of complex legal issues, but most couples find child custody to be the most difficult topic to resolve. Every parent wants the best for their child, and many are willing to go to great lengths to ensure their health, happiness, and well-being. However, it’s common for parents to disagree on how to raise their children, and filing for divorce does not simply make this problem go away. Before your divorce can be granted, you and your spouse must work together to create a fair and reasonable parenting plan and obtain approval from a judge. If you cannot reach an agreement on your own, you will need to attend a formal court hearing, and a judge will have the ultimate authority over who will be granted custody of your child.

Before filing for divorce, it is crucial to understand how child custody matters are handled by Missouri state courts so you can prepare for an optimal outcome in your case.

Legal vs. Physical Custody

There are two components of child custody in Missouri – physical and legal. Physical custody is defined as where the child will reside, while legal custody is the power to make important decisions about the child’s life, such as their healthcare, education, religious upbringing, extracurricular activities, or other decisions with a major impact on the child’s life. Judges may grant joint or sole custody for either legal or physical custody.

In sole physical custody, the child lives with one parent for the majority of the time (the custodial parent) and then visits the other parent (the noncustodial parent) at certain times specified in the parenting plan. In joint physical custody, both parents share significant parenting time with the child, and the court will select one parent to be the residential parent for educational and mailing purposes. Still, for practical reasons, joint physical custody is rarely equal. For example, the child may reside with one parent four nights per week and the other parent three nights per week.

Sole legal custody grants one parent the right, responsibility, and authority to make decisions about the child’s health, education, and welfare, but this parent is expected to inform the other parent of these decisions. Joint legal custody gives both parents equal decision-making rights, responsibilities, and authority, meaning they must confer with one another before making decisions about these issues.

Child custody arrangements can take any of the following forms:

  • Joint physical custody and joint legal custody by both parents
  • Sole physical custody and sole legal custody by one parent
  • Joint physical custody by both parents and sole legal custody by one parent
  • Joint legal custody by both parents and sole physical custody by one parent

What Factors Do Judges Consider in Custody Determinations?

As part of their divorce negotiations, parents can create their own parenting plan, which is a document specifying a custody and visitation schedule, the rights and responsibilities of each parent, how they will resolve any disputes that arise, and how the child’s expenses will be paid. Both parties are required to submit a proposed parenting plan, whether they work together or submit individual plans. This plan must be approved before the divorce can be finalized.

After the plan or plans are submitted, a judge will review the terms and make their own determination about whether the arrangement is appropriate and whether it should be approved or denied. If the plan is approved, it is incorporated into the final custody order. If the parents cannot agree on child custody, they must appear before a judge in a formal court hearing, during which both sides present evidence and testimony supporting their claim for custody.

Judges in any type of family law case will always prioritize the best interests of the child when making custody determinations. They consider all relevant factors, including:

  • The wishes of the child’s parents with regards to custody and the proposed parenting plan
  • The specific needs of the child
  • The ability and willingness of each parent to meet the child’s needs
  • The child’s need for frequent, continuing, and meaningful relationships with both parents
  • Which parent is more likely to allow the child to maintain frequent, continuing, and meaningful contact with the other parent
  • The relationships and interactions the child has with parents, siblings, other relatives, or any individuals who may affect the child’s best interests
  • The mental and physical health of each parent and the child
  • The child’s ties to their home, school, and community
  • Whether either parent plans to relocate the child
  • Whether either parent has a history of abuse or criminal behavior
  • The child’s preferences for custody if they are old enough to express a mature opinion

Extensive research shows that children benefit from having continued contact and meaningful relationships with both parents, and the law encourages both parents to participate in decisions that affect their child’s life. This means judges prefer joint physical and legal custody unless they believe that this arrangement would not serve the child’s best interests. For example, a judge is unlikely to award joint physical custody to parents who live hundreds of miles apart, and a parent with any history of domestic violence would not be given joint legal custody.

Can I Modify a Child Custody Order?

It is possible to modify an existing child custody order, but the parent must show a continuing and substantial change in their circumstances or the circumstances of the child and prove that such a modification is necessary for protecting the child’s best interests. A custody modification must be based on facts that have come to light after the original order was entered or facts that were unknown to the judge at the time they issued this order.

Prepare for the Best Outcome in Your Custody Case

If you are planning to file for divorce, the decisions you make now can significantly impact your future as well as the future of your children. Child custody orders are legally binding and cannot be changed without sufficient cause. Approaching your case with legal representation from the very beginning ensures you can protect your rights and achieve the best outcome for your family. Contact Stange Law Firm today to discuss your case.