Understanding the New Custody Law in Missouri
Missouri courts have long favored joint child custody arrangements whenever possible to help ensure both parents are actively involved in their child’s life. However, a new custody law in Missouri was recently passed that establishes a standard of equal parenting time and modifies the factors courts must consider when determining custody arrangements. The legislation was signed by Governor Parson on July 6, 2023, making 50/50 custody the default in child custody matters, with the presumption that it is in the best interests of the child. The new law takes effect August 28, 2023.
What is the New Custody Law in Missouri?
Courts previously determined child custody matters by weighing several statutory factors, including the best interests of the child. The new custody law in Missouri sets forth a rebuttable presumption that an award of equal, or nearly equal, parenting time is in the best interests of the child. Under the legislation, this presumption is rebuttable by a preponderance of the evidence. This is the standard of proof applied in most civil cases — it means it is more likely than not that the facts raised as evidence to rebut the presumption are true.
Specifically, the court must take all relevant factors into consideration when deciding whether the 50/50 custody presumption should be rebutted, including the following factors:
- The wishes of the parents — The parents’ wishes regarding the custody arrangement and the proposed parenting plan must be considered.
- The child’s needs for a meaningful relationship with their parents — A judge must evaluate the child’s need for a frequent, continuing, and meaningful relationship with both parents, as well as the ability and willingness of each parent to actively perform their role.
- The child’s relationship with siblings and others — In addition to considering the relationship the child has with their parents, a court should look at the interaction they have with their siblings and any other person who could impact their best interests.
- Which parent is more likely to encourage a meaningful relationship with the other — A judge will need to determine which parent will allow frequent, continuing, and meaningful contact between the child and the other parent.
- The child’s adjustment to their home, school, and community — While the child’s adjustment to their environment is crucial in determining whether equal parenting time is appropriate, the new law specifically states that the fact a child attends home school should not be the sole factor in determining custody.
- The mental and physical health of all parties involved — The court should evaluate the mental and physical health of both the parents and the child, including any history of abuse.
- Either parent’s intention to relocate — A judge must consider the intention of either parent to relocate the child’s principal residence.
- The child’s unobstructed input — Under the previous law, courts were required to take the child’s wishes into account when determining who should be the child’s custodian. The new custody law in Missouri modifies the language of the statute to mandate that the court consider the “unobstructed input of a child, free of coercion and manipulation, as to the child’s custodial arrangement.”
50/50 custody does not preclude an award of child support. However, when custody is equally shared between the parties, an award would not be based on the amount of parenting time — it would be determined by each parent’s income. Typically, in such cases, the parent who earns less would be the recipient of the child support payments.
Exceptions to the 50/50 Custody Presumption
The presumption that equal parenting time is in the child’s best interests under the new custody law in Missouri can be rebutted if an agreement is reached outside of court. Parents are still free to amicably settle parenting time matters and create their own custody arrangements without involving a judge using an alternative dispute resolution method — such as negotiation, mediation, or the collaborative process. If parents believe a custody arrangement that divides parenting time differently is in the best interests of the child, they may draft and submit their custody agreement to the court for approval.
While it is public policy to encourage frequent, meaningful, and continuing contact between a child and both parents after a divorce or separation, the law recognizes that this may not always be the case. The 50/50 custody presumption can also be rebutted under the new custody law in Missouri if the court finds that there has been a pattern of domestic violence. In cases where the child’s welfare would be placed at risk, such as with domestic violence, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and severe mental health issues, supervised visitation may be ordered. Other logistical problems can also prevent a 50/50 schedule such as distance between the parties, incompatible employment or other schedules, and interference with school. Any 50/50 schedule in Missouri must be feasible and make sense in the given case.
Significantly, when deciding custody cases, a judge is required to consider any history of abuse. If the court finds that awarding custody to the abusive parent would be in the child’s best interests, it must enter specific findings of fact and conclusions of law. In addition, if domestic abuse occurred, a judge must make specific findings of fact to show that the custody arrangement ordered best protects the child and the family member who is the victim of domestic violence.
Contact an Experienced Missouri Child Custody Attorney
Child custody matters can be legally complex and emotionally overwhelming. If you are facing a custody dispute, it’s essential to have knowledgeable counsel by your side who can help to navigate the legal process. Divorce and family law attorney Mark A. Wortman provides skillful representation to clients in the greater Kansas City, Missouri area for a broad scope of family law issues, including those involving child custody. To schedule a confidential consultation to learn how he can assist you with your case, please contact him today online or by calling (816) 523-6100.