Special Circumstances in Missouri Child Custody

Certain special circumstances can affect the process and outcome of your Missouri child custody case. Consult a lawyer if your case involves any of the situations below.

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Default judgment

In a default judgment, the parent who opens the case (the petitioner) gets the orders they request because the other parent (the respondent) declines to participate.

At the start of every family case, the petitioner has to notify the respondent of the proceedings through a process called service (unless the respondent signs a waiver). If the respondent doesn't file an answer with the court within 30 days of being served, the petitioner can ask the court for a default judgment.

The petitioner must then schedule a default judgment hearing and serve the respondent notice of it.

If the respondent attends the hearing, the judge will most likely deny the default request, and the case will proceed through the court process.

If the respondent doesn't attend the hearing, the judge will most likely order the default judgment, granting everything requested in the initial filing paperwork (as long as it's reasonable and meets the child's best interests). The respondent has one year to ask a judge to overturn the judgment and reopen the case — as long they prove that they had good reason for not responding.

Third-party custody and visitation

The court sometimes awards custody or visitation to a nonbiological parent, called a third party. This can be anyone the court deems appropriate, such as the child's relative, their former stepparent or the nonbiological parent in a same-sex relationship.

To receive legal and physical custody, the third party must prove that the biological parents are unfit to care for the child.

To receive visitation, the third party must prove that the child's welfare requires ongoing contact with them.

Domestic violence

In their court paperwork, parents must disclose any history of domestic violence. Then the judge is required to order custody arrangements that protect the child and the victimized parent from further violence.

Often, the victim is given sole physical custody, and the other parent receives supervised visitation (more below). However, the judge can still order joint custody in these cases if they determine it's in the child's best interests.

Victims of domestic violence should review the Missouri Bar Association's legal guide for survivors, which includes contact information for legal services offices throughout the state. They should also consult the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Orders of protection

Victims of domestic violence can get an order of protection for themselves and for their children by filing motions in their county's Circuit Court for a judge to review. Many counties have victim advocates who help with the paperwork. There are no filing fees.

If the judge decides the victim or child is in immediate physical danger, they immediately issue an ex parte order of protection that lasts for 15 days.

If the judge doesn't consider the victim or child in immediate danger, they deny the ex parte request.

Either way, both parents attend a hearing shortly thereafter where the judge decides whether to issue a full order of protection, which lasts between 180 days and one year.

History of crime or substance abuse

If a parent has a history of crime, the judge typically gives sole custody to the other parent — especially if the crime was recent, violent or against a child. The parent with the criminal history is often given supervised visitation (more below).

Parents with substance abuse issues face similar prospects. They usually receive supervised visitation or limited parenting time (e.g., no overnights). The judge may require them to get treatment and undergo periodic drug testing.

The judge might also consider the criminal history and substance use of anyone else who regularly spends time with the child, such as a parent's romantic partner.


The judge may order a professional to evaluate a contested case and make custody recommendations. Either parent can request an evaluation, or the judge may order one of their own accord.

In a psychological evaluation, a psychologist conducts mental health assessments of one or both parents to determine their parental fitness.

A custody evaluation, in which a custody expert investigates the family's situation, is more comprehensive. The evaluator examines the mental health of the parents and children, interviews others who know the family, and reviews the family's personal, medical and criminal records.

Both types of evaluations result in a report that's sent to the judge and parents. It summarizes the information gathered and gives recommendations for a parenting plan, residential schedule and, possibly, other requirements like counseling. Judges give the recommendations significant weight when making their decisions.

Guardian ad litem

A guardian ad litem (GAL) is a court-appointed attorney who represents a child's best interests.

They're not exactly the child's attorney because they look out for the child's well-being rather than desires. Another difference is that their communication with the child is not confidential. A GAL gives the judge a report with custody recommendations after conducting an investigation — similar to a custody evaluation, but without the mental health assessments.

The GAL participates in court proceedings on behalf of the child. If the child gives testimony, the GAL attends the interview with the judge.

By Missouri law, family court judges must appoint a GAL when a custody evaluator suspects child abuse and when a parent or third party alleges child abuse or neglect.

Undocumented parents

In Missouri, no law prevents undocumented parents from receiving custody. However, there's also no law that says judges can't consider a parent's immigration status — and judges have wide leeway in deciding what factors affect a child's best interests.

Before filing or responding to a case, undocumented parents should contact their local legal aid office or an immigration lawyer with experience in Missouri family law.

If a parent is detained or deported for immigration issues, they have the right to participate in the case remotely. They can use phone or video to participate in mediation, a trial and more.

Addressing special circumstances in a parenting plan

Your parenting plan should be unique to your family and reflect your specific needs.

If a lawyer or mediator is writing your parenting plan, share with them any circumstances it should address.

If you're writing your own plan, you have the flexibility to include what you want. But it should use airtight language that leaves no room for interpretation.

The Custody X Change parenting plan template walks you through common provisions while letting you enter as many custom provisions as you want.

It's a sure way to get a plan that's tailored to your family and meets legal standards for formatting and language.

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