Missouri Court Awards Sole Custody to Man Who Believed He Was the Child's Father and Fulfilled that Role

playing with building blocks together

A parent-child relationship, defined at the most basic level, is the relationship between a person and one of the people who contributed directly to their birth. There is far more to parenting than biology, though, and Missouri family law recognizes this. Having a biological relationship to a child does not necessarily entitle that person to parental rights. Missouri courts must always look to the “best interest of the child” when determining how to allocate custody rights and obligations in a divorce or child custody dispute.

State law presumes that parents are in the best position to have custody of their child, but it allows courts to make other arrangements when appropriate. If a third party, meaning someone other than a biological parent, is in the best position to care for a child, and it is in the child’s best interest for them to do so, a Missouri court may award them custody. This was the outcome of a recent case in the Missouri Court of Appeals, A.A.B., et al v. A.D.L., et al. The court affirmed a trial court order granting sole physical custody to a man who believed for most of the child’s life that he was the child’s biological father, and who had fulfilled every obligation expected of a parent during that time.

The ruling in A.A.B. illustrates several important points about Missouri family law. First, the Court of Appeals will usually presume that a trial court’s findings are in a child’s best interests. Additionally, Missouri courts sometimes take an expansive look at “parenthood.” Even though DNA tests showed that the man who helped raise the child was not the child’s biological father, the court honored the role he played in the child’s life.

Child Custody in Missouri

Section 452.375 of the Missouri Revised Statutes defines several forms of child custody:

  • Legal vs. physical custody: Legal custody refers to the right to make decisions about major issues relating to “health, education, and welfare.” Physical custody refers to the right to establish a child’s residence and to make decisions on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis.
  • Joint vs. sole custody: Joint custody gives both custodians rights over decision-making, although not necessarily equal rights on all things. Sole custody grants decision-making authority to one custodian.

A court could grant joint physical and legal custody to both parents, making them roughly equal partners. It could grant sole physical custody to one parent, and joint legal custody to both parents. It could grant sole legal and physical custody to one parent. The options are many and varied.

The Best Interests of the Child

Section 452.375 also establishes the “best interest of the child” standard, but does not define it with any great specificity. The state’s public policy is that a child’s best interests include “frequent, continuing and meaningful contact with both parents,” unless a court finds that this is not the case.

State law provides a non-exclusive list of eight factors for courts to consider when deciding whether a parenting plan is in a child’s best interests. Three of those factors, found in §§ 452.372.2(2) - (4), were directly involved in the A.A.B. case:

  1. The child’s need for “a frequent, continuing and meaningful relationship” with their parents, and each parent’s “ability and willingness” to fulfill their parental obligations;
  2. The child’s “interaction and interrelationship” with people “who may significantly affect [their] best interests,” including parents, siblings, other family members, friends, etc.; and
  3. Each parent’s “likel[ihood] to allow the child frequent, continuing and meaningful contact with the other parent.”

A Putative Father and Child

The trial court awarded third-party custody of the child in A.A.B. to a man identified as the “putative father” (“PF”). He and the mother dated for several years, and according to the court, he believed they were in an exclusive relationship when she became pregnant in 2005. They both signed an affidavit of paternity when the child was born, and the child carried PF’s surname. Years later, the mother testified at trial that she knew all along that PF was not the biological father. When PF and the mother separated in 2007, he paid child support and kept a regular visitation schedule. This continued for another eight years.

The mother abruptly informed both PF and the child in 2015 that PF was not the biological father. She reportedly told the child, who was nine years old at the time, “in the absence of professional mental-health support while the child was playing a video game.” She also told PF that he would no longer have visitation with the child. She introduced the child to the biological father (“BF”) soon afterwards. BF then moved in with the mother and the child, and PF filed a petition to modify custody.

A Messy Custody Dispute

According to the court’s ruling, the mother cut off all contact between the child and PF and his family. She transferred the child’s school so PF could not visit the child at school. She and BF prevented the child from speaking by phone with PF. A court-appointed guardian ad litem recommended sole custody for PF, based on the mother’s and BF’s actions.

After a two-day trial in 2017, the court found that “the putative father was the only father the child knew for the first nine years of his life, and the putative father and the child had a close relationship.” It awarded sole physical custody to PF, and joint legal custody to PF and the mother. It found that third-party custody was appropriate based on the factors outlined in § 452.375.5(5)(a): the mother and BF were “unfit, unsuitable, or unable to be a custodian” and third-party custody was in the child’s best interests. The court also ordered that the child keep PF’s surname.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the order. It explained its reasons for affirming the order, but noted that it was doing so ex gratia. This term means “as a favor,” or “not compelled by legal right.” How much to read into that statement is each individual’s prerogative.

A Dissenting Judge Looks at the Nature of Parenthood

One judge dissented from the court’s ruling, while clearly stating that she agreed with the outcome of the decision. Her disagreement was with the characterization of PF as a “third party.” While this might seem like a minor matter of legal language, it could be very important to the child.

The discovery of a biological relationship between BF and the child had no immediate legal effect. Someone would have to file a legal pleading to establish a parent-child relationship. The dissenting judge noted that neither BF nor the mother ever filed anything to this effect. This, in her view, made BF “a legal non-entity in the minor child's life.” PF was therefore a parent in the proceeding, not a third party.

Family law attorney Mark A. Wortman focuses his practice exclusively on child custody disputes, divorce, and other family law matters in the Kansas City area. To schedule a confidential consultation with a knowledgeable legal advocate, please contact us today online or at (816) 523-6100.