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Grandparents and Stepparents Have Limited Rights in Missouri

Last week, I related the story of "Dave" who learned during his divorce that the 10-year old girl he had helped raise was not his daughter, but the product of his wife’s extramarital affair. Not being the father, Dave was cut-off from "his little girl" with no provisions for custody or visitation in the final divorce decree.

That was the law in 1978. Stepparents, grandparents, siblings and others parenting children not their own were especially vulnerable should the child’s natural parent(s) decide to end that relationship. Today, the rights of "third party parents", especially grandparents, are afforded more protection than a generation ago, but these rights still remain distinctly subservient to those of the natural parents.

Visitation Rights are Still Very Narrow

In Missouri, only grandparents are statutorily provided the right to petition the court for visitation rights, should their contact be cut-off by the natural parents. However, this right to visit a grandchild will only be considered in 3 circumstances:

  • If the natural parents have filed for divorce or are divorced.
  • If one of the natural parents dies and the surviving parent cuts the grandparent(s) off from the child, but only if that surviving parent is not the child of the grandparents. (Said another way, your son or daughter can cut you off from your grandchildren, but not your son/daughter-in-law.)
  • If the child has resided with the grandparent(s) for at least 6 of the 24 months preceding the filing of a divorce petition by the natural parents, and the grandparent is unreasonably denied visitation for at least 90 days. However, the right to apply is not available while the natural parents are still married and living together.

In all 3 circumstances, the grandparent(s) have to demonstrate that their continued visitation would be in the child’s best interests and that they would not endanger or impair the emotional development of their grandchild. Unlike the third circumstance, the first two do not require that the grandparent(s) be cut-off from the child for any defined period of time.

In addition, grandparents can ask the court to order the parents to mediate their dispute with the grandparents in the hopes in reaching a mutually agreeable solution.

Custody Rights are a Little Broader

Grandparents, stepparents, siblings and even neighbors or friends involved the raising of someone else’s child have the right to apply for "custody" of that child, but only if the natural parents are divorced, or if both parents die, or if both abandon the child. (In simple terms, being granted "custody" means that the person is provided the right to parent that child.)

In the situation where the natural parents divorce but at least one remains alive and available to the child, the burden of proof for a third party seeking custody is high. They have to demonstrate that both father and mother are "unfit, unsuitable or unable to meet the needs of the child or that the welfare of the child demands it". This right to apply was first granted in 1984, too late for "Dave", who should have been able to prove that the welfare of "his little girl" demanded that he remain involved.

If you are a third party parent denied visitation or custody, your best option is to stay in touch by telephone, letters, cards and gifts. However, if the natural parent(s) objects, then the third party parent must stop or risk sanction by the court. In this case, the last resort is to wait until the child reaches the age where he/she can make contact on their own. Typically, the court will not interfere in a loving, healthy relationship with a third party parent once the child is 16 years of age.

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The court may award spousal support to either spouse, but a spouse seeking maintenance must request it in the divorce complaint. In determining the need, duration, and amount of maintenance, the court considers the finances of the spouse requesting support, the time needed for schooling or training to help the petitioning spouse find a job, the earning capacity of each spouse, the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage, the duration of the marriage, the age and health of both spouses, and the conduct or misconduct of the spouses during the marriage and divorce.
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