What Are the Missouri Child Custody Rights of Unmarried Parents?

By Bernadette A. Safrath

Updated December 20, 2018

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With more people having children without being married, child custody is an important concern for unmarried parents when their relationship ends. Parents in Missouri can create their own custody arrangement, but if they are unable to agree, a court will issue a custody decision.


If parents are married when a child is born, the husband is automatically considered the child’s father. However, when parents are unmarried, a father has no legal rights unless he establishes paternity. Until paternity is proven, a father does not have any claim for custody of the child. Paternity can be established at the child’s birth when unmarried parents sign an Affidavit Acknowledging Paternity at the hospital. Otherwise, genetic testing must be done on the father and the child and the results are recorded in a court order.

Custody for Unmarried Parents

Parents are able to make their own agreement regarding custody, usually joint custody, although the parents must show that they can cooperate and make decisions together regarding the child’s care. If they cannot demonstrate an ability to work together or they are unable to agree on custody, the court will decide which parent should be awarded custody of the child. In Missouri, custody of a child whose parents are not married is most often granted to the mother. While unmarried fathers do have rights, they have a difficult burden to overcome in seeking custody of their child. Unless he can show that the child’s mother is unfit, an unmarried father usually loses a custody dispute with the child’s mother.

Best Interests of the Child Standard

When custody is in dispute in Missouri, the court uses several factors called the “best interests of the child” standard to determine custody. They include: (1) the child’s preference, (2) the child’s relationship with each parent, (3) each parent’s ability to care for the child, (4) whether each parent is willing to allow the child to maintain contact with the other parent, (5) the mental and physical health of each parent, as well as the child, (6) the child’s performance in school and adjustment to home life and (7) whether either parent plans to relocate the child.