Understanding the new Missouri 50/50 Custody Law

Missouri courts have long favored joint child custody arrangements which enable parents to have frequent and continuing contact with their child allowing parents to be actively involved. Several years ago, legislation was introduced which, if passed, would have established equal parenting time. The legislation did not pass but the idea had been born. St. Louis County, Jackson County and Greene County, to name a few, actually wrote into their local rules that the default custodial arrangement was to be 50/50 custody. It was then up to the parent objecting to demonstrate how equal custody was not in the best interests of the child. However, a new custody law in Missouri was passed that establishes the standard of equal parenting time. The new law also modified the factors that the courts must consider when determining custody arrangements. The legislation was signed by Governor Parson on July 6, 2023, and went into effect August 28, 2023.

So, what is the New Custody Law in Missouri?

Previously Courts determined child custody cases by evaluating several statutory factors, including the best interests of the child, but there was no established baseline that the Courts had to utilize. The new law provides that baseline and 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 can be rebutted by a preponderance of the evidence. This is the standard of proof applied in most civil cases and means it is more likely than not that the facts raised as evidence to rebut the presumption are true.

Under the former and new version of the legislation, the Court must take all relevant factors into consideration when deciding whether the new 50/50 custody presumption should be rebutted, including the following factors:

  • The wishes of the parents — A judge must consider the parents’ wishes regarding the custody arrangement. That information is provided through the parents’ testimony and their individual proposed parenting plans.
  • 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 each parent, as well as the ability and willingness of each parent to actively perform their role.
  • The child’s relationship with siblings and others — A judge must evaluate the relationship that the child has 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 must evaluate 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 — A judge must evaluate the mental and physical health of both the parents and the child, including any history of abuse either by the parent towards the other parent or by a parent to the child.
  • Either parent’s intention to relocate — A judge must consider the intention of either parent to relocate the child’s principal residence especially if the parent’s expresses an intention to move sooner rather than later.
  • 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 law modifies that previous language to include a mandate that the Court must consider the “unobstructed input of a child, free of coercion and manipulation, as to the child’s custodial arrangement.

Many parents believe that 50/50 custody means that they will not have to pay child support, but such an award does not preclude an order for child support. However, when custody is equally shared between parents, any award would not be based on the amount of parenting time but instead 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 does not prevent parents from reaching other custodial arrangements outside of court. Parents are still free to amicably settle parenting time matters and create their own custodial arrangements without involving a judge using an alternative dispute resolution method — such as attorney or party 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. The Courts believe that the parents, if they are cooperative, are in the best position to determine what is best for their child as opposed to a Judge who has only heard a few hours of testimony.

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 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. Take your time and do your research. Call around to several attorneys and choose the one who you feel comfortable with and not the one who has the best advertisement or website. While the Housholder Law Firm would be honored to represent you in your child custody case, in the end, the case is about you and your child.