Child custody is one of the most contentious issues handled in the St. Louis, MO, family court system. When married parents divorce or unmarried parents decide not to live with each other anymore, they must go to court to decide custody of their children. Every parent needs to understand how custody works under Missouri state law. Specifically, it is vital to know the differences between legal and physical custody.

What Is Legal Custody?

“Legal custody” refers to the ability to make major decisions for a child. What qualifies as a “major decision” on a child’s behalf may differ for every family. However, family law in Missouri typically upholds that any decision that will materially influence a child’s life qualifies as major—for example, choosing what type of medical treatment a child will receive if they become ill, where the child will attend school, and what type of spiritual upbringing the child will have typically qualify as major decisions their parents must make.

When parents share custody of their children, the court must determine a legal custody arrangement based on the fitness of each parent and each parent’s role in their child’s life. In most joint custody agreements, parents share legal custody 50/50 and must consult one another concerning major decisions for their children. If you share legal custody with your child’s other parent, it is imperative to maintain respectful and consistent communication with them about any major decisions. If you make any major decisions on your child’s behalf without consulting their other parent, this could lead to a messy legal battle between the two of you, and you could even face penalties for such actions.

What Is Physical Custody?

“Physical custody” refers to where a child will spend their time under the terms of a custody order. A divorce order that involves child custody will typically dictate how much time the child will spend with each parent. For example, if a child spends the school year with one parent and the summer with the other parent, this would be a roughly 70/30 split of physical custody. If the child spends alternating weeks with each parent throughout the year, this would be closer to a 50/50 physical custody arrangement.

Typically, physical custody and legal custody work in tandem. For example, if one parent obtains sole legal custody, they are likely to receive sole physical custody as well, and the other parent may only have limited visitation rights. It is important to note that legal and physical custody will bear on a related child support order.

How Does Custody Influence Child Support?

Child support exists to ensure that the children of divorced parents or unmarried and separated parents receive equal financial support from both of their parents. The amount paid in child support typically hinges on the couple’s custody terms. In virtually every child custody and support case, one parent will pay child support to the other. The amount of time a child spends with each parent typically informs the parents’ support obligations. For example, if a child spends much more time with one parent than the other, the parent who has the child more will inherently spend more on raising the child than the other, so the other parent will likely owe them child support.

The St. Louis, MO, family court system considers many factors when it determines child support. The parents’ respective custody rights are one of the most important of these factors. The court will use various criteria to determine the overall support obligation for each parent, such as the cost of living in the area, the child’s unique financial needs, and each parent’s income. Next, the court will evaluate the custody rights awarded to each of the parents. When the child spends more time with one parent than the other, the court generally considers this as the primary custodial parent’s support obligation. The other parent will need to pay them their portion of the support obligation in the form of child support.

Can I Change My Custody Order in St. Louis, MO?

One of the most important aspects of the family court system of Missouri is the fact that it is possible to change a family court order without a complex appeals process. It is possible to file a petition for post-judgment modification under certain conditions. It is best to hire an attorney to assist you with the process. Many divorced parents and unmarried parents beholden to custody and support orders will use the modification system to request changes to their custody and support terms. For example, if you pay child support and lose your job due to a disability, you can file a petition for modification of your support obligation that reflects this change.

Similarly, it is possible to file a petition to change your custody terms if you believe that your proposed change will better suit your child’s best interests. For example, if you are offered a job in another state that entails a significant pay increase, and your child has been having a difficult time when they are with their other parent, you could have solid grounds to petition for expanded custody rights and gain the court’s approval to move with your child.

Ultimately, if you intend to alter your custody terms in any way, you must undergo the modification process and provide the court with clear reasoning as to why your proposed change better suits your child’s best interests. It is also possible to petition the court for sole custody if your child’s other parent has harmed them or otherwise proven to be a dangerous influence on your child.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Custody Determination?

Regardless of whether your child custody determination relates to a larger divorce case, or you were never married to your child’s other parent, a custody determination may be one of the most stressful experiences of your life. It is best to have legal representation on your side as you navigate child custody determination. Your attorney can provide valuable advice and help you develop the most compelling case for the custody rights you want. If you are unsure about any aspect of an impending child custody case, speak with an experienced St. Louis, MO, family law attorney as soon as possible to determine the best approach to the situation.