Laws governing property, custody, and support often vary widely between states, so dissolving a marriage can become complicated. Here is a synopsis of divorce law in Missouri.
Will You Require an Attorney?
Reasonably intelligent people certainly can complete divorce documentation. However, retaining an attorney can ensure that your paperwork is in order and concerns are adequately addressed. Legal professionals also can foresee issues that can become future problems.
Missouri law allows marriages to be declared invalid—known as annulments—although the circumstances are limited and the procedure is rare. Reasons for annulments include incapacity to enter into marriage, such as duress, mental impairment, or close blood relationship. Couples who want to remain married because their religion opposes divorce can negotiate legally binding separation agreements that resolve property, custody, and support issues, but do not dissolve the marriage.
Grounds for Divorce
Missouri is a no-fault state; if the petitioning spouse testifies that the marriage is "irretrievably broken" the divorce will be granted. At least one party must be a state resident for 90 days before filing, and the divorce cannot be finalized until 30 days after the filing.
The longer a divorce takes and the more contentious the litigation becomes, the more costly the case will be. That is why mechanisms such as mediation and negotiation are used to reach agreements on matters such as custody, property, and maintenance without the expense of protracted litigation. Though mediation is not required in Missouri, many couples find benefits in the process.
In an emergency, a spouse who fears an estranged partner may request a restraining or protective order. Either side can request temporary orders for urgent issues such as child custody, child support, or spousal maintenance. The terms of these orders can become permanent if the conditions remain satisfactory for all parties. If both spouses agree, and there are amicable co-parenting arrangements and minimal assets, a single order can dispense with many matters, if not all of the terms of the dissolution. For contentious cases, separate filings frequently become necessary.
Property and Debts
Missouri is an "equitable distribution state," which means that marital property, assets, and debts are distributed "fairly," but not necessarily 50/50. If couples cannot reach an agreement, a judge considers evidence to determine an equitable distribution. Not all assets are marital property; gifts bestowed during the marriage, inheritances, and property acquired prior to the union often are individual property not subject to distribution.
Custody and Support
There are two types of custody, and Missouri laws favor joint custody when possible: Legal custody sets parameters for medical and other decisions; physical custody determines where children live. If parents cannot agree on a child custody arrangement, a judge will decide. Visitation and support are separate issues, and a state formula determines support. However, a judge can increase or decrease the amount. Tax ramifications accompany support payments—parties who receive spousal support pay taxes on it, but child support recipients are not taxed.
Reaching agreements on parenting issues is easy in some divorces; others require mediation or a judicial ruling to achieve resolution. Many Missouri jurisdictions require parenting classes.
Health insurance and payment of medical expenses often become controversial issues in dissolutions. If one spouse has been providing family coverage, that spouse commonly will be expected to continue coverage for a specific period. Parents frequently share noncovered expenses for children.
Women have the option of retaining married surnames or returning to any previous name, but either request needs to be incorporated into the final decree. Custody, visitation, and support orders often can be modified later if either party becomes dissatisfied and returns to court.
Seeking Legal Help
This article is an overview of Missouri divorce law. For specific questions consult a local divorce attorney.