Filing for Child Custody in Missouri: 5 Steps

The process for obtaining custody orders begins when a parent files (opens) a case with the family law division of their local Circuit Court. Custody orders include a parenting plan, residential schedule and child support arrangement.

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As you prepare to file your case, consider your options for getting orders:

  • You and the other parent can reach an agreement in advance so you can file an uncontested case. Attorneys, mediators and collaborative law teams can help you reach an agreement.
  • You can file a case without an agreement. If the other parent challenges your requests, the case is contested and goes through the court process until you reach an agreement or go to trial.

Ideally, you should have a lawyer prepare and file your court forms for you — especially if your case is contested.

If you decide to represent yourself, follow the steps below to file a case.

Step 1: Determine your case type

If you're married to the other parent, you can file for divorce or separate maintenance (legal separation).

If you're not married to the other parent and have officially established paternity, file a custody and support case.

If you're not married to the other parent and need court orders for DNA testing, file a paternity case. (These cases are always contested.)

Step 2: Complete forms

You can download the forms to open a case from Missouri's self-help website. All Circuit Courts accept these forms, but check whether yours has preferred versions. Keep in mind that court clerks aren't allowed to help you fill out forms.

The parent who opens the case is referred to as the petitioner, and the other parent is the respondent. Both may be referred to as litigants.

If your case is uncontested…

To open an uncontested divorce case, complete the petitioner's dissolution of marriage forms (forms 1–8). For separate maintenance forms, contact your court or a lawyer.

To open an uncontested custody and support case, either parent can complete the petition for child custody and support forms (forms 1–4 and 6).

All uncontested cases can skip Step 4 below if both parents complete the court's waiver of service form.

If your case is contested...

If you're opening a contested divorce, you can still use the above petitioner's dissolution forms — but experts recommend having a lawyer create the paperwork instead.

Likewise, if you're unmarried and have confirmed paternity but don't agree on custody or child support, you can use the petition for child custody and support forms above — but it's better to have a lawyer create the documents for you.

If you need court orders for DNA testing, the mother can complete the mother's paternity petition forms, or any possible father can complete the father's paternity petition forms.

For all cases...

Signatures must be notarized, so don't sign any forms until you're with a notary public or the court clerk.

If you can't agree on how to co-parent for the duration of the case, either of you can add a motion for temporary orders.

If you're representing yourself, you also need to submit your certificate of completion from the online Litigant Awareness Program.

Step 3: Submit forms and pay filing fees

To officially open your case, submit your forms to the Circuit Court in your county or in the county where the other parent lives.

Fees vary by county and case type. Expect to pay between $200 and $300 when you file. Your county may have additional costs, including fees for serving papers, filing motions (e.g., a request for temporary orders), using notary services and making copies.

If you can't afford the fees, you may be eligible for a fee waiver. Submit the request along with your other paperwork.

Step 4: Serve papers

In what's called service of process or simply service, parents are required to officially provide each other with copies of the court paperwork they file.

When you open a case, the court has a sheriff's deputy or court officer deliver the papers to the other parent. If you don't know the parent's home or work address, or if they're avoiding service, the court may appoint a private process server.

If the parent still can't be located, you can use service by publication, in which you put a notice in local newspapers — check with your court clerk for how to do this. You should also consult an attorney because service by publication can affect your ability to collect child support.

Step 5: Wait for the other parent's answer

The respondent has 30 days from when they're served to file an answer to your petition. If they waive service, they have 30 days from when the case is opened.

If the respondent doesn't file an answer by the 30-day deadline, you can ask the court for a default judgment.

If your case is uncontested…

Once the respondent files an answer that agrees with everything in your petition, you can move on to the settlement process.

In divorce cases, they should file an answer using the respondent's dissolution of marriage forms (forms 1–3). For separate maintenance forms, contact your court or a lawyer.

In custody and support cases, they file the respondent's custody and support forms (forms 1, 3 and 4).

If your case is contested…

Respondents in paternity cases should file the respondent's paternity forms.

Respondents in other contested cases can use the respondent forms listed above for their type of case. However, experts recommend having an attorney create the answer because the online versions are designed for uncontested cases.

All respondents in contested cases should include a proposed parenting plan (form 4 for divorcing respondents and form 2 for unmarried respondents).

Preparing for what comes next

Whether you're moving on to a settlement or to preparations for trial, take advantage of technology to be fully prepared.

The Custody X Change online app offers custom parenting calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, an expense tracker and more.

You can use it to put together proposals for the other parent, negotiate, prepare settlement paperwork or organize evidence.

Be prepared for every step of your case with Custody X Change.

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