The Steps in a Court Case: 1 - 3

The better you understand how the court system works, the better chance you have of successfully representing yourself. In Missouri, family law cases are filed in the circuit court. Some areas have special courts called "family courts" that are part of the circuit court. Family court cases include dissolutions, annulments, paternity actions, name changes, modifications, child support, domestic violence, etc. The Missouri Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Missouri deal with legal mistakes made in the circuit court.

If you are representing yourself, there are a variety of resources available that may help you.

  • Court Clerks & Court Staff: Missouri does allow court clerks to help you with certain information; however, court clerks are limited in the assistance they can provide you. Click here to review the list of items court staff can and cannot do for you: Court Staff Assistance

  • Disability or Language Barrier: Everyone has a right to come to court and participate in the legal system. This includes people who use wheelchairs, people with hearing and vision problems, and people who don't speak English. If you or anyone participating in your case needs special arrangements, first contact the court where you filed the case.

  • Mediation: You may be able to resolve some issues through a process called mediation. Mediation gives people a chance to discuss their disputed issues with a neutral mediator. A mediator is a trained problem-solver who can help parties reach an agreement. Mediators usually charge a fee for their services, but mediation could save you time and money in the long run. The mediator can help you and your spouse think of possible solutions and alternatives. Ask the court for a list of trained mediators available in your area, or visit the Association of Missouri Mediators or M.A.R.C.H. Mediation websites. If an agreement is reached through mediation, the parties must still present their agreement to the court for approval by the judge.

Step 1. Starting Your Case: The Petition
The person (called a "party" in court) who starts the case is called the petitioner. The person you are filing your case against is called the respondent. A person keeps the title as petitioner or respondent for all future filings in the case.

The petitioner has to tell the court IN WRITING what the case is about, who the case is against, and what outcome (known as relief) is wanted. For example, a person seeking a divorce would explain IN WRITING what the case is about (a dissolution of marriage) and the "relief" wanted, which may include a divorce along with the division of property, parenting arrangements (child custody), and child support. The original writing in a case is called the "petition." The petition must be complete and include certain information required by law. After the petition is filed either petitioner or respondent may file motions to request action by the court about a variety of matters.

Step 2. Filing

How is a case filed?
The petition must be verified before it can be filed, which means you must swear to or affirm the truth of the facts in the petition. Then, you must sign the petition under oath before a notary. Most banks (including those in grocery stores) have notaries that will do this for a small fee.

Where is a case filed?
There are laws that determine where a case may be filed. A family law case is usually filed in the county in which either the petitioner or respondent resides. In most cases, a motion to change a prior order regarding parenting arrangements (custody) must be filed in the same court that issued the prior order.

What if you cannot afford the court costs?
If you cannot afford the court costs, you may ask the court to waive fees and costs. This sometimes is called In Forma Pauperis (in the manner of a poor person). The court will determine whether to waive filing fees and other costs. View the In Forma Pauperis application form. The application form also may be available at the court clerk's office. You will have to provide the court with detailed financial information.

If a poor person is represented by a Legal Services Corporation agency, the agency may certify to the court that you are unable to pay costs. This certificate requires the court not to charge you costs.

Are there any other forms that need to be filed?
There are other forms that must be filed along with the petition so the court has enough information about you to review the circumstances of your case before a hearing. The forms required depend on the type of case being filed. In all cases a 'Confidential Filing Information Sheet' is required to provide confidential information to the court. When children are involved, a form must be filed disclosing whether other cases are filed or pending regarding the children. These forms may be available for download from this site at the conclusion of this Litigant Awareness Program. Individual courts may have other versions of these forms that they utilize. To avoid delay, check with your local court prior to filing your case to be sure you are filing all required forms (the judge ultimately will decide whether the paperwork you have filed meets legal requirements.)

Step 3. Service

How is the other person notified a case has been filed?
When the petition is filed with the court, an official notice called a "summons" is issued to be delivered to the respondent. This is called service of process. Service is very important and must be done correctly. Doing it incorrectly will cause not only delay of your case, but MAY cause your case to be dismissed. Service is proper when the respondent receives a copy of the petition and the summons.

The most common methods of “service” are listed below:

  • Waiver of Personal Service: When the respondent is willing to accept the petition, the respondent is provided with a copy of the petition and signs a form called "Entry of Appearance and Waiver of Service.” This form must be signed before a notary public and filed with the court. All this form means is that personal service is waived. The respondent does not waive any legal rights or claims, the right to hire a lawyer, or to appear in court.

  • Personal Service: The sheriff or other court officer hand delivers the petition and the summons to the respondent. It is important to provide the court with very specific information about where, how, and when to find the respondent.

  • Private or Special Process Server: A special or private process server may be desirable when the respondent is difficult to find or are trying to avoid being served. This is a situation where a lawyer should be consulted to help you.

  • Service by Publication: THIS METHOD CAN BE USED ONLY WHEN THE RESPONDENT CANNOT BE LOCATED AFTER DILIGENT EFFORTS. Check with a lawyer before attempting service by publication because this method of service can affect and/or restrict some of the things the court could otherwise order in the case, such as division of property, spousal maintenance, or child support. This method of service requires that a motion be made to the court that all attempts to locate or reach the other party have failed. There are specific requirements for which newspapers are acceptable for service by publication.

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