Among all the issues to be decided in a Missouri marital dissolution, child custody determinations are perhaps the most emotionally charged. While no one would disagree that the child’s best interest should be the highest priority, reasonable people can reach different conclusions over the optimal way to reach that standard. If the divorcing couple can agree on a plan that works for them, the court will usually approve it. If no agreement can be reached, however, the court then has the duty to establish a custody determination.
Initially, it is important to distinguish between legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody refers to the making of important life decisions, such as educational, religious and medical determinations. Physical custody means which parent has care of the child, in a home setting or otherwise. Because Missouri law has a specific statute that indicates a child’s best interest is served by having a close relationship with both parents, a family court judge will begin with the assumption that it is best for both parents to share equally in legal and physical custody.
However, many factors can change that initial assumption. The court will look to the parents’ preferences, any existing agreement, the health of the child, financial issues, the living arrangements of both parents and any other relevant factor. The court has wide discretion in making its ultimate decision.
Divorce is often a time of stress for all involved. Parents can make it easier for their children if they focus on the positive aspects of a new beginning and keep disputes with the ex to a minimum. An experienced family law attorney can assist in both the legal and emotional matters that arise.