The Missouri Times is previewing pre-filed legislation during the month of December, bringing you an insider’s look at bills that could potentially drive session next year. Follow along with our Legislative Preview series here.
Custody agreements in Missouri could default to equal time with each parent — with exceptions — under a new House bill pre-filed earlier this month.
HB 299 from returning state Rep. Wayne Wallingford would alter the state’s law on child custody agreements. If passed, the bill would add the presumption that awarding equal or near-equal custody time to each parent is in the best interest of a child, and the court would default to that arrangement. The presumption could be rebutted through a custody agreement from the parents or if a court finds that a pattern of abuse has occurred.
“What we need to focus on is what’s best for the child,” Wallingford told The Missouri Times. “In a divorce, there tends to be a lot of fighting going on but not enough focus on what’s in the best interests of the child. So this bill says that custody will be equal as long as both parents are capable of it and keep to good moral values in the eyes of the law. This would fall by the wayside if one of the parents is found to be unfit in some way.”
Wallingford said a similar law was enacted in Kentucky in 2018, and he has read studies examining its effects on relationships between children and their parents. He said he believed the typical arrangement imposed by many courts could be harmful to families facing a custody battle.
“Quite a while ago a judge in Texas decided Thursdays and every other weekend would be fine, and then suddenly all the other judges looked to that decision, and that’s the way it’s been handled for quite some time,” he said. “It’s not fair to either one of the parents or the child. A child needs a mother and a father, but in most of these situations, you go into court as a parent and leave the court as a visitor. That really robs the child of that relationship.”
Wallingford sponsored the same bill in the Senate last year before reclaiming his old House seat in November. He said most of the legislature supported the bill in the upper chamber, though it passed the Families and Children Committee and was placed on the informal calendar a week before the Senate went into its extended hiatus in March. He expected to see it move forward during a more typical legislative session, he said.
“That bill is my highest priority going into the House,” he said. “When it was carried on this side this year there weren’t any issues, so my hope is that it can pass through the House pretty readily, and hopefully it can be successful in the Senate as well. I think it’s what’s in the best interest of the child and sometimes the parents or the courts overlook that. It’s not about the man or the woman — it’s about the child they created between them, and that’s the important part of this issue.”
The 2021 legislative session begins Jan. 6.