The decision to end a marriage is highly personal and never made easily. But if you have concluded that divorce is the only option, here are five important things to consider as you navigate Missouri’s process for “dissolution of marriage,” the state’s legal term for divorce.
1) Where Do I File for Divorce?
To file for divorce in one of Missouri’s 46 circuit courts, either you or your spouse must have lived in the state, or have been stationed in the state as a member of the armed forces, for at least 90 days prior to the filing. A “Petition for the Dissolution of Marriage” must be filed in the county where either “the petitioner” (the spouse who files the petition), or “the respondent” (the other spouse), resides. However, if the initial petition is filed in the county where the petitioner lives, the respondent can file a motion asking that the case be moved to the county where he or she resides, if the children have resided in that county for the previous 90 days or more, or if transferring the case to that county serves the children’s best interest. The factors the court must find to determine if the children’s best interest is served by transferring the case are whether “the children and at least one parent have a significant connection” with the county and whether “substantial evidence” exists in the county “concerning the present or future care, protection and personal relationships of the children.”
2) Do I have to state reasons for the divorce?
Missouri is considered a “no-fault” divorce state, meaning that state law does not require a spouse to prove wrongdoing on the part of the other spouse in order to obtain a legal divorce. A divorce petition must only state that the marriage is “irretrievably broken,” a term that is fairly broad and loosely defined in state statutes to mean “there remains no reasonable likelihood that the marriage can be preserved.” However, if the responding spouse denies under oath that reconciliation is not possible, the court can still find that the marriage is irretrievably broken, if the petitioner can prove one or more of the following facts:
- That the respondent has committed adultery and the petitioner finds it intolerable to live with the respondent;
- That the respondent has behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent;
- That the respondent has abandoned the petitioner for a continuous period of at least six months preceding the presentation of the petition;
- That the parties to the marriage have lived separate and apart by mutual consent for a continuous period of 12 months immediately preceding the filing of the petition;
- That the parties to the marriage have lived separate and apart (with or without mutual consent) for a continuous period of 24 months preceding the filing of the petition.
3) Will the Court Divide Our Property 50-50?
In divorce cases, Missouri courts are required to divide property and debts equitably, which means fairly, but not necessarily equally. Many factors come into play to further complicate this process. First, only marital property can be divided. Nonmarital property, which includes anything acquired by an individual spouse prior to the marriage as well as certain types of property acquired after the date of marriage, belongs to the spouse who acquired it and is not divided at divorce. Considering all the different types of property a couple may acquire over the course of a marriage – homes, land, bank accounts, cash, cars, furniture, collectibles, jewelry, investments, and retirement accounts, to name a few – determining a division that is fair to both spouses can be a tricky procedure. Courts will also consider other factors in deciding a fair split, such as each spouse’s financial situation, the value of nonmarital property that each spouse retains, how much each spouse contributed to the purchase of marital property, the custody arrangement for the children and more.
4) Do I have to hire an attorney?
The State of Missouri allows you to represent yourself in a family law matter, but you are first required to complete a two-step “Litigant Awareness Program.” Step 1 of this online program consists of reading written materials or watching a video pertaining to general courthouse procedure. Step 2 involves reading additional materials relevant to your specific family law matter. (For the specific links, click here.) If either the petitioner or respondent intends to represent themselves, they must first fill out, print, and present the court with a certificate verifying they’ve completed both steps of the “Litigant Awareness Program.”
Once that process is completed, all of the forms required to file in a divorce proceeding for both the petitioner and respondent are available online. That may sound like an easy process, but forms required for the petitioner number more than 60 pages in total. Forms required to be filed by the respondent if a divorce is contested are also available online but can also be confusing and overwhelming. Filing fees, the method and manner of filing (electronic or hard copy submissions) and additional documents required to be filed differ among the 46 local circuit courts. If you choose to represent yourself, you alone are responsible for the accuracy of the information you provide the court. Even if you believe you and your spouse are in complete agreement on all aspects of the divorce, including division of assets and debts and child custody, support and visitation plans, mistakes in the filing process can be costly, both financially and emotionally as well, particularly when minor children are involved.
Before you decide to proceed without an attorney, take advantage of the free initial consultation that we at Marler Law Partners and other firms offer to talk about the risks and benefits of going it alone in your particular case.
5) How Do I Choose a Family Law Attorney?
You may decide that you would prefer to be represented by an attorney in your divorce case – or to hire an attorney for a limited purpose, such as reviewing agreed property divisions and parenting plans in an uncontested divorce or helping you understand and complete the online forms you would then file yourself. (Did we mention that one of our attorneys has served on the State Supreme Court’s Committee on Access to the Family Courts and is actually the chairperson of the committee responsible for writing the online family law forms used by self-represented litigants?) We have also written a separate blog post listing factors to consider when choosing a family law attorney to make sure you connect with someone who is qualified, experienced, and best meets your particular needs.
If you have any other specific questions or concerns, please contact us.