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What Is the Difference Between Legal & Physical Custody in Missouri?

Posted by Joshua Wilson | Mar 08, 2021 | 0 Comments

What Is the Difference Between Legal & Physical Custody in Missouri?

There are a number of legal terms you'll need to be familiar with as you progress through a divorce. When the divorcing couple has a child, the parents and the court will determine who gets custody. There are 3 types of child custody - legal custody, physical custody, and sole custody. It's important you understand the difference between the two terms and how they are commonly decided upon.

What is Legal Custody? 

Legal custody refers to the decision making power over the child. These would be everyday decisions like where the child attends school, whether or not they attend church, discipline, and non-emergency medical care. According to Missouri Statutes Section 452.375, legal custody refers to the decision making rights, responsibilities, and authority relating to the health, education, and welfare of the child. 

What is Physical Custody? 

Physical custody refers to where the child physically resides. It's more common these days for the child to move between the homes of the two parents, but there are also arrangements where the child lives with one parent and the other has visitation rights. According to Missouri Statutes Section 452.375, physical custody awards each or a sole parent a significant (does not have to be equal) amount of time where the child lives with or is under the care and supervision of one or both of the parents. 

What is Sole Custody? 

Sole custody means only one parent is granted legal and/or physical custody over the child. It's possible to have sole physical custody, but not have sole legal custody. This means the child would legally reside with only one parent, but both parents would work together to make decisions regarding the child's life. If a parent is granted sole physical custody the child's physical address will be with that parent. 

What is the Difference Between Legal Custody and Physical Custody? 

Missouri follows the standard definitions of legal and physical custody, and in all cases custody can be granted to one or both parents. Legal and physical custody are determined separately, and while it's most common to have joint custody for both, there are factors that could exclude one parent from seeking or being awarded custody.

In 2018, Missouri changed its child custody guidelines due to growing evidence showing that children fare better when they have consistent contact with both parents. The new approach takes into account the best interests of the child which encourages regular, meaningful contact with both parents unless one parent is deemed unfit. 

Because each case is different, courts often put the onus of deciding the custody arrangement on the parents. This can be done on their own, or with the help of an attorney or licensed mediator. 

How Child Custody is Determined in Missouri 

There are a number of factors that can affect this decision that determine child custody in Missouri. One important thing to know is that the Missouri law states that no preference will be given to either parent because of their age, sex, or financial status. 

  • Each parents' proposed parenting plan and wishes for their child
  • The child's emotional need to maintain close relationships with each parent
  • The child's own wishes (which may or may not coincide with his/her best interests, and depend on the age and maturity level of the child)
  • Any relocation plans that a parent may have for themselves or the child
  • Each parent's willingness to encourage the child to have a healthy relationship with the other parent
  • The mental and physical well-being of each parent
  • Any history of abuse or neglect

If the parents along with their attorneys or mediator are unable to come up with a custody decision, the court will make the decision for them. 

Work with a Family Law Attorney 

Going through a divorce can be a stressful, lengthy process, but you don't need to go through it alone. When you're already overwhelmed by the emotions of divorce, it can be helpful to speak with a family law attorney to learn more about your options for custody, and how the decisions you make today will affect the future of your family. Contact Joshua Wilson Law Firm to schedule a free consultation

About the Author

Joshua Wilson

Divorce is complex and highly emotional. Everything is going to change, including your most important personal relationships, your finances, your daily routine, and -- of course -- your home life. This can be a stressful time, and the parties involved often are not thinking clearly. You need some...


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