We St. Louisans have our own particular style of pizza (provel cheese!), our particular style of BBQ (ribs!), and our particular style of frozen custard (Ted Drewes!). And, in the unfortunate case of family breakups, we have our particular laws regarding child custody. If your romance that started at Laclede’s Landing in the summer has followed the Mississippi River out of town, you need to figure out who will make the big decisions for your children and how. This article provides a brief introduction to St. Louis child custody law.
How Does Child Custody Work?
St. Louis recognizes two types of child custody. Physical custody, sometimes called parenting time, refers to the actual time you spend with your child. Legal custody, called legal decision-making authority, refers to the right, responsibility, and authority to make health, education and welfare decisions for your child. Although a court may order sole legal decision-making to one parent, recent Missouri custody law favors joint parenting, encouraging a court to adopt a plan that maximizes both parents’ time with the child and forbidding a court from giving one parent custodial preference based on the parent’s or child’s gender.
How Do I File For Child Custody in St. Louis?
The main element of a St. Louis child custody filing is a parenting plan. Missouri law requires parents to submit proposed parenting plans either individually or jointly. Creation of the parenting plan is intended to assist parents who are not living together to figure out the custody and visitation schedule, as well as the decision-making rights and responsibilities of each parent. It is also an opportunity for you and your ex to work together to come up with a schedule that will work for both of you and your child. If you and your ex cannot agree on an acceptable plan, a judge may develop one in the child’s best interests. A parenting plan, among other requirements, should include:
- The type of custody each parent will have;
- A schedule of parenting time or child visitation;
- A statement assigning legal decision-making to either or both parents; and
- A method for resolving disputes to avoid returning to court.
There are four St. Louis courthouses where you can file your parenting plan and other child custody paperwork:
- The Family Court of St. Louis County at 501 S. Brentwood, Clayton, MO 63105; Tel: (314) 615-4400.
- The St. Louis Circuit Court at 10 N. Tucker Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63101; Tel: (314) 622-4433.
- The St. Louis County Circuit Court at 7900 Carondolet, Rm. G122, Clayton, MO 63105; Tel: (314) 615-8029.
- The St. Louis City Municipal Court at 1520 Market Street, St. Louis, MO 63103; Tel: (314) 622-3558.
How Does the Court Decide Custody Issues?
If you and your ex can’t agree on a parenting plan, a court will generally determine parenting time and legal decision-making based on the best interests of your child. The court can consider any factors relevant to your child's physical and emotional well-being, including:
- Your child’s need for a frequent, continuing, and meaningful relationship with both you and your ex, as well as your ability and willingness to actively perform your functions as parents for your child’s needs;
- Your child’s interaction and interrelationship with you, his or her siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect his or her best interests;
- Your child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community;
- The mental and physical health of all individuals involved in your child’s life, including any history of abuse of anyone involved; and
- Your child’s wishes (usually starting at around age 11, though the court will give more weight to his or her opinion the older your child gets).
Can Child Custody Be Changed After It Is Ordered?
Your child’s needs might change according to age, and parenting plans may need to be modified as your child grows. A plan can include a method for review under specific circumstances, such as when your child reaches a certain age, as well as a method for dispute resolution. As with the original parenting plan, the court will consider your child’s best interests when ruling on child custody modifications. For the court to modify a custody order, there usually must be a substantial change in you or your child’s circumstances and the modification must be in your child’s best interests. This is generally only done if new facts have come up since the prior order, or there are facts that the court did not know at the time the prior order was issued.
Child custody matters are a complex area of the law, especially where exes are involved. You may find it helpful to speak with an attorney. If you’d like legal assistance you can try to meet with an experienced family attorney or search for free legal aid in St. Louis.