7 Steps to Custody Orders: Missouri Family Court Process

The court process for custody orders varies somewhat depending on your case and your county.

If you agree with the other parent on a parenting plan, residential schedule, child support arrangement and all other issues in your case, you can file an uncontested case. This is the quickest, least expensive path to custody orders.

For help reaching an agreement, consider hiring a mediator or, for more complex cases, using collaborative law.

If parents disagree on any issue, their case is contested and goes through the litigation process below until they reach a settlement agreement or go to trial. This process can take a year or more.

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Before you start the court process

Ideally, you should have a lawyer. They come up with a legal strategy, complete and file paperwork, negotiate with the other parent and, if necessary, argue your case in court.

If you can't afford a lawyer, you may be able to use legal aid services or other low-cost legal help.

Anyone who represents themself must complete Missouri's brief Litigant Awareness Program online before they open a case.

Familiarize yourself with Missouri's custody laws, the procedures in your court and the state's handbook for separating parents.

Step 1: Opening a case

The legal process officially begins when a parent opens (files) a case in the family law division of their county's Circuit Court. The parent who opens the case is the petitioner, and the other is called the respondent. Both are referred to as litigants.

Married parents can file for divorce or legal separation. (Both types of cases address custody and child support). At least one spouse must have lived in Missouri for 90 days before a case can be filed.

Unmarried parents can file for custody if they have officially established paternity. (The case will also address child support.) If they haven't established paternity, either parent can open a paternity case to address this issue along with custody and child support.

In uncontested cases, the petitioner should turn in their county's waiver of service forms (which must be notarized). These cases then skip the remaining steps and move on to the settlement process.

Step 2: Serving the other parent

The petitioner needs to have the other parent formally notified about the case through a process called service. The respondent then has 30 days to file an answer (also called a response).

If in the answer the respondent agrees to the petitioner's requests, the case is uncontested and can move on to the settlement process.

If the respondent disagrees with any of the petitioner's requests, their answer should list the disagreements and the custody arrangement they want. This creates a contested case that proceeds through the remaining steps.

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

Step 3: Parent education program

Missouri requires all parents in a case involving custody to complete a class about the effects of separation on children.

Called a parent education or orientation program, the class can be in-person or online, and parents don't have to take it together.

If a parent fails to complete the course, the judge may not issue final orders (even in a settlement).

Check with your court for how many hours of parent education it requires, how to report your completion, and deadlines (usually within 45 days of filing). Many counties offer low-cost or free programs, and all counties allow parents to take a class from certified providers (who typically charge around $50).

Possible: Temporary orders hearing

If a parent files a motion for temporary orders and the other parent objects, the court holds a hearing so both can argue their case and present evidence.

Temporary orders might include a parenting plan, residential schedule, and arrangements for child support or other financial issues. Typically, they remain in effect until replaced by final orders.

If parents can agree how to manage parenting for the duration of their case, they don't need to ask the court for temporary orders.

Step 4: Mediation

In mediation, a neutral expert in dispute resolution and child custody helps you and the other parent compromise. You're not required to reach a settlement in mediation, but it's strongly encouraged.

Most counties require parents to attempt mediation before they can request a trial. Parents can also request mediation at any point in the litigation process.

Each county court has a domestic relations division that offers free mediation. Parents can also use the statewide custody mediation program. Both programs offer mediation for child custody issues only and not divorce issues (e.g., property division).

Parents can opt to hire a private mediator, whose fees are typically $200 to $300 an hour. (Parents share the cost.) Private mediators have greater scheduling flexibility and may have specialized expertise: complex finances, children with special needs, LGBTQ families, etc.

Regardless of the mediation option you choose, contact the court clerk for your county's mediation paperwork.

Step 5: Discovery (continues throughout)

Discovery (sometimes called document exchange) is a multi-part process in which parents exchange information and the evidence they're preparing. It can begin shortly after a parent files a contested response, and it ramps up as trial approaches.

Failure to comply with your court's discovery requirements can negatively affect your case and be considered contempt of court.

Possible: Custody evaluation or guardian ad litem investigation

The court may appoint a custody evaluator or guardian ad litem (GAL) to gather information about your family. Judges typically appoint these people when a case involves child abuse, domestic violence or major conflict. Also, either parent can ask the court to appoint an evaluator or GAL.

Through interviews and reviews of family records, the professional assesses what's in the child's best interests and writes a report that's sent to the judge and both parents. The report includes recommendations for a parenting plan, residential schedule and more (e.g., counseling or substance abuse treatment). If a child expresses a custody preference, it's also included.

Judges don't automatically order the recommendations but do give them great weight when making decisions.

Step 6: Pre-trial conference

Most judges require a pre-trial conference. Parents and their lawyers (if they have them) meet with the judge to discuss trial procedures and the disputed issues. To encourage a last-minute settlement, the judge may tell parents how the case is likely to play out in court.

Step 7: Trial

Any issues the parents still can't agree on are decided by the judge in a trial.

At the trial, both parents (or their lawyers) present evidence and question witnesses to support their requests.

The judge considers parents' arguments and evidence along with any reports and recommendations. The judge may announce their decisions immediately, but sometimes they first call a break for hours, days or, in complex cases, weeks.

The judge's decisions become final orders that include your parenting plan, parenting time schedule and child support requirements.

Throughout your case

During the custody process, you may need to create a residential schedule, write a parenting plan, keep a log of interactions with the other parent, and more.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of this in one place.

With residential calendars, a parenting plan template, a digital journal and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Throughout your case, take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts.

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