The family law system in the State of Missouri has recently seen a significant shift in the potential success of claims of third parties seeking custody rights with minor children. This shift was further defined by a recent decision from the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals.
In the context of custody litigation in Missouri, a “Third-Party” most often refers to an individual who is not a biological or adoptive parent who is seeking specific custody rights with a minor child. Often this individual has a biological or marital relationship to the child, such as a grandparent, aunt or uncle. However, a biological relationship with a child is not a requirement for a “Third-Party” seeking custody rights.
Section 452.375 of our Missouri Statutes provide in part with regard to Third Party custody or visitation, as follows:
“When the court finds that each parent is unfit, unsuitable, or unable to be a custodian, or the welfare of the child requires, and it is in the best interests of the child, then custody, temporary custody or visitation may be awarded to any other person or persons deemed by the court to be suitable and able to provide an adequate and stable environment for the child.”
It has long been a fundamental legal principal in the State of Missouri that a child’s best interests are presumed to be best served by custody awards to that child’s biological or adoptive parents. This often served as a basis to dismiss or deny claims by third parties seeking custody. However, in relatively recent appellate decisions custody and visitation rights have been granted to non-parents. These awards have most often been accompanied by allegations and evidence that the mother and biological father were unfit or unsuitable parents.
In a more recent decision the Court of Appeals expanded these rights further when it reversed the decision of the trial court to dismiss a claim from a Third-Party seeking custody rights to a child who was conceived through artificial insemination. In this case the parties, Kate and Kathleen, were involved in a committed same sex relationship and jointly decided to have a child. The parties shared decisions during the process, and in 2012 Kate gave birth to a child. The parties and the minor child continued to reside together until 2015 when they separated. Shortly after their separation, Kate informed Kathleen that she would not let her see the child. With the assistance of her Missouri family law attorney, Kathleen filed an action seeking custody rights with the minor child, including a Petition for Third-Party custody. In her Petition, Kathleen did not allege that Kate was unfit or an unsuitable parent. Kate filed a motion to dismiss Kathleen’s claim, in part, on the bases that Kathleen had no biological relationship to the child and therefore had no standing to bring an action for custody.
In reversing the trial court’s dismissal of Kathleen’s claim, the Court of Appeals found that Kathleen had a valid claim for Third-Party Custody and could be awarded custody rights. Further, the Court found that a party seeking Third- Party Custody does not need to prove that a biological parent is unfit if she shows that the welfare of the child requires it through proof of a special or extraordinary circumstance rendering it in the child’s best interest to award custody to a third party.
It is important to note that every circumstance is unique and the outcome of a claim for Third-Party Custody depends significantly on the details of the relationship between the child and the Third-Party.
If you have a claim for Third-Party custody or are defending a claim for Third-Party custody it is critical that you have an experienced Missouri family law attorney to assist you. Contact the Bellon Law Group today for a free consultation regarding your Missouri family law issues.