New Changes to Missouri Family Law – Part One

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In the past legislative session that ended in May, the Missouri General Assembly passed multiple amendments to the Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act (UDMA) that sets forth the procedures and standards for obtaining a divorce in Missouri. The bill is with the Governor, and he is expected to sign it. Because the changes are important, we thought we would discuss them in a series of posts.

The first notable change occurs in Section 452.375, which is the statute setting out the definitions of legal and physical custody and the manner in which the court must make a custody decision. The current law requires the court to consider “all relevant factors” including a list of eight non-exhaustive items before reaching a decision. Now, the new law would only impose that burden on the court when the parties have not reached an agreement with regard to custody. Further, when the parties are in dispute over custody, the court must not only consider the factors but also issue written findings of fact and conclusions of law stating the basis for the custody decision.

It should be noted that when the parties do agree on custody, the court still has a responsibility to review the arrangement and determine if it is in the best interests of the child. If not, the court must reject the agreement.

The new law also adds important language regarding non-discrimination between parents in making a custody decision. The new language states, “The court shall not presume that a parent, solely because of his or her sex, is more qualified than the other parent to act as a joint or sole legal or physical custodian of the child.” The earlier language that still remains simply says the court may not give preference based on age, sex or financial status. Now, the law makes clear that what we used to call the “tender years doctrine” – where mothers were presumed to be more appropriate caregivers for children under seven – a doctrine long ago rejected by our courts, is now written into the statute itself.

Another change to Section 452.375 involves required language in the judgment as to noncompliance with court orders. Moving forward, every judgment must have a paragraph that explains that noncompliance with custody orders may be handled through filing a verified motion for contempt or a family access motion. Presumably, the legislature hopes that having this warning in the judgment will discourage noncompliance and also indicate to every parent what remedies to seek in the event of noncompliance.

If you have questions about the new changes to Missouri family law, contact us – we can help.

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