In Missouri, there are guidelines that the Court must follow in making a child custody determination.  While all child custody determinations must be made in accordance with the best welfare and interests of the child, there is also a statutory and case law framework that guides the court in making the determination.  Note that when parties come to an agreement on custody, most courts take the position that the parents are in a better position to determine what is in their child’s best interest, and will generally approve a joint parenting plan (although a joint parenting plan is advisory only, and the Court can make it’s own determination in any case-albeit infrequently).  However, when the parents cannot agree on a parenting plan, the Court will decide the case based on the following:

Statutory Factors

  1. Wishes of the parents and the proposed parenting plan submitted by the parents;
  2. The needs of the child for a frequent, continuing, and meaningful relationship with both parents, and the ability and willingness of parents to actively perform their functions as mother and father for the needs of the child;
  3. The interaction and interrelationship of the child with the parents, siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interests’
  4. Which parent is more likely to allow the child frequent, continuing, and meaningful contact with the other parent;
  5. The child’s adjustment to home, school, and community;
  6. The mental and physical health of all individuals involved, including any history of abuse of any individuals involved;
  7. The intention of either parent to relocate the principal residence of the child;
  8. The wishes of the child as to the child’s custodian.

Case law factors:

  1. A good and stable home is the most important single consideration in addition to the statutory factors;
  2. Stability, including frequent moves and intent to relocate;
  3. Parenting skills and primary care;
  4. Moral fitness as it relates to the children;
  5. Adultery, sexual misconduct, and cohabitation (note however that these facts, in and of themselves, do not necessarily affect a custody decision.  There must be an effect on the child’s interests)
  6. Homosexuality (although, in and of itself, cannot be a basis for denying a parent custody);
  7. Drug and alcohol use;
  8. Attempted alienation of the child;
  9. Religious beliefs;
  10. Custodial preference of the child (although age of the child will affect the weight given, or if considered at all).
  11. Any other relevant factors.

A child custody determination is based on evidence that is highly fact specific, and every case is different.  The above factors do not constitute a complete list, and any particular case can be decided on any one or multiple factors, depending on the situation.