Rights of Unmarried Fathers in Missouri

By Claire Gillespie

Updated October 19, 2018

Gentle man holding baby girl


It’s important that a child has a strong, healthy bond with both her mother and her father. But sometimes relationships don’t work out, and parents may find themselves disagreeing over what is best for their child. While a father's rights in Missouri are the same rights to his child as the mother's he has to take extra steps to establish those rights if the parents are not married.

Establishing Paternity in Missouri

Before an unmarried father can file for custody or visitation rights in Missouri, he must establish paternity. In Missouri, the child's paternity is assumed when the parents are married; have been married and the child was born during the marriage or within 300 days of the marriage ending; or when the parents have attempted to marry, even if the marriage was considered invalid before the child was born or within 300 days of separation, annulment, divorce or death of the father.

If the child's paternity is not assumed, it can be established voluntarily when both parents are in agreement. They can file an affidavit stating who the child's father is, they can place the father's name on the child's birth certificate, or the father can file an admission of paternity with the court. Paternity is also established if the father supports the child in a regular, continuous way.

If the parents do not agree on the identity of the father, either parent can request free genetic DNA testing through the Missouri Family Services Division. Either parent can also file a court action asking a judge to establish paternity. This court action should be filed in the circuit court of the county in which the child, the father or the mother lives, at any time before the child reaches 18. The child himself can file an action until he turns 21.

Genetic testing involves swabbing the inside cheek of the child, the mother and the father. The samples are then sent to a lab to be tested. In Missouri, a result showing at least a 98 percent probability that the father is the biological father is required for him to be the presumed father. However, genetic testing alone does not establish legal paternity – it must be accompanied by an affidavit acknowledging paternity signed by both parents or a court order naming the man as the child's father.

As soon as legal paternity is established, the father's name is added to the child's birth certificate, and he has the same rights as married fathers and mothers in Missouri.

Fathers' Rights in Missouri

When paternity is established, a father can petition the court for custody or visitation. The judge will always make custody and visitation decisions based on what is in the best interests of the child, showing no bias toward either the mother or the father on the basis of gender. This means fathers have equal rights with mothers to custody of their children.

Generally, the starting point is the presumption that continued, frequent and meaningful contact with both parents, as well as having both parents present and participating in all decisions affecting the child, are in the child's best interests.

Missouri family law provides guidance to help the judge make the right decision. Factors to be considered include the child’s health and safety; the child’s emotional needs; the child's relationship with each parent, siblings and extended family members; any history of abuse or domestic violence; the mental and physical health of all parties involved; and both parents’ co-parenting skills and willingness to encourage a relationship between the child and her other parent.

Child Custody Arrangements

Missouri courts will consider various custody arrangements, namely joint physical custody and joint legal custody to both parents; joint physical custody to both parents and sole legal custody to one parent; joint legal custody to both parents with sole physical custody to one parent; and sole custody to either parent.

Physical custody relates to which parent the child lives with most of the time. Joint physical custody is not necessarily an equal 50-50 split, but rather it gives each parent considerable time with the child.

Legal custody concerns who makes major decisions on behalf of the child, for example, relating to his health, education and religion. Legal custody does not involve making everyday decisions, like what the child eats for dinner and what time he goes to bed – those decisions are down to whatever parent the child is living with at the time.

In some cases, a father will be granted sole physical custody of his child. This means he has the child in his care for the majority of the time, with the mother as the noncustodial parent having visitation time with the child. When the father is the sole custodial parent, and the mother is the noncustodial parent, the father is usually entitled to child support from the mother to help cover the cost of raising and caring for the child.

Under Missouri child custody laws, the child's views may be taken into account when making a decision, but this is not the only factor. The law does not specify the age at which a child's wishes influence the court's decision, but the wishes of a teenager will generally be considered, and the wishes of a young child are unlikely to have much impact on the outcome.

In Missouri, either parent can file with the court a Motion to Modify Child Custody – Form CAFC101 – to change an existing child custody order. However, the court will only make changes if they are deemed to be in the best interests of the child.

Missouri Child Visitation

In Missouri, the court will order reasonable visitation rights for the parent not granted custody of the child unless doing so would endanger the child’s physical health or impair her emotional development. The court order will set out visitation rights so that both parents know when, where and for how long the noncustodial parent has visitation with the child. If there is a history of domestic violence in the relationship, the court may find that visitation with the abusive parent is not in the child's best interests. Like custody, all decisions relating to child visitation depend on the circumstances of each individual case and the best interests of the child.

Missouri Parenting Plan

A written parenting plan is required in all family cases involving children in Missouri. The parents may work together to create the plan, then submit it to the court for approval. If the parents can't reach an agreement, they can submit separate plans. The judge will then consider both plans and may select one of them or create a new one entirely.

The parenting plan should cover every aspect of the child's care and living arrangements, taking into account the circumstances of the case. It should include provisions relating to communication between the parents; how the children will be transported to custody exchanges and visitation; a detailed custody and visitation schedule; a dispute resolution procedure for matters the parents might disagree on; how health care coverage and related expenses for the child will be managed; who pays child support and how much; and how any other costs involved in raising the child will be apportioned between the parents. The court will approve the parenting plan that it believes best meets the needs of the child.