Filing for Child Custody in Massachusetts: 4 Steps

To request child custody, you'll need to open a case. As you prepare to file, consider the options for resolving your case:

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You can hire an attorney to file the case for you. If you choose to settle or litigate on your own, follow the steps below to file for custody.

Step 1: Determine your case type and court

It's important to know what type of case you want to open.

Divorce is for spouses terminating their marriage. Separate support is for spouses who want to legally separate but not end their marriage. An annulment invalidates a marriage as if the spouses were never married. Paternity names a legal father, while a custody case by itself is for unmarried parents who have already legally named the father.

You can request legal custody, a parenting schedule and child support when opening any of these cases in Probate and Family Court.

If you're divorcing or annulling, file in the county where you and your spouse lived together, if either of you still live there. Otherwise, open the case in the county where either of you currently live. Whoever files for divorce must have lived in Massachusetts the 12 months prior.

If you're filing for separate support, paternity or just custody, file in the county where the child lives.

Step 2: Complete your forms

In all cases involving custody, parents must complete an Affidavit Disclosing Care or Custody Proceeding and a Child Support Guidelines Worksheet.

Any of the following forms could also apply to your case:

In addition, each case type has its own forms, listed below.

Ask your local court if you need to fill out any other forms, including ones unrelated to custody. But keep in mind that court employees can't help you fill out paperwork.

Once you've completed the applicable forms, make two copies — one for you and one for the other parent. You'll give the originals to the court in Step 3.

Divorce cases

Start with a Report of Absolute Divorce. The other forms you'll need depend on the type of divorce you have.

You have a fault divorce if you want to officially blame a spouse for the marriage's breakdown. If this applies to you, fill out the Complaint for Divorce. You will have to choose a ground (reason) for the divorce, such as infidelity.

A divorce is no-fault if neither spouse wants to officially blame the other. If parents agree on all terms in a no-fault divorce, they fill out a Joint Petition for Divorce and an Affidavit of Irretrievable Breakdown. If they don't agree on all terms, either parent can complete a Complaint for Divorce 1B.

Separate support cases

To begin a separate support case, complete the Complaint for Separate Support.

Annulment cases

To begin an annulment case, complete the Complaint for Annulment.

Paternity cases

If parents disagree on the child's paternity, one of them must file a Complaint to Establish Paternity to begin a paternity case and request custody.

Cases about custody, parenting time and child support only

If unmarried parents agree on who fathered the child, they fill out and sign a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Parentage form together. The father can then complete a Complaint for Custody.

Step 3: Open your case

Take your documents to the court clerk at the court you determined in Step 1.

Without an Affidavit of Indigency, you'll need to pay the clerk the filing fees applicable to your case. Fees are $100 for separate support, paternity and custody-only cases, and $200 for divorce and annulment cases.

The clerk will hand back the two copies you made of your documents and a summons so that you can serve the other parent.

Step 4: Serve the other parent

Service is the delivery of court documents to the other parent. You must have them served within 90 days of opening your case.

If both parents sign the acceptance of service section of the summons before a notary and file it with the court, service is no longer necessary. Otherwise, you'll need to ask someone to serve one copy of each form you've filed (except the Affidavit of Indigency, if applicable) and the summons.

Typically, you'll hire a deputy sheriff or constable to hand documents to the other parent. You can also use a private process server or someone at least 18 years old with no interest in the case.

After serving the other parent, the sheriff or constable will complete the return of service section of the summons. Ask the server if they will return the summons to the court or if you will need to.

If the sheriff or constable can't locate the other parent, you can ask the court for permission to serve by another means like mail or newspaper publication.

If the other parent lives out of state, you'll have to use a method of service acceptable in that state. Check with the court to see if they can help.

The other parent's response

After the other parent (called the defendant) has been served, they have 20 days to file an answer that says whether they agree or disagree with each point of the complaint. In addition, they can file their own complaint to make requests during this period.

If they miss the deadline, the court will enter a default judgment without their involvement. This means the court will approve the initial requests, including those for custody, if they're in the best interest of the child.

Preparing for what comes next

The next step in the court process depends on your circumstances. Most parents go to mediation, unless they reach settlement first.

No matter what's next for you, take advantage of technology to be fully prepared.

The Custody X Change online app offers custom custody calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, an expense tracker and more. You can use the app to put together proposals for the other parent, negotiate, prepare settlement paperwork or organize evidence.

Be prepared for every step of your case with Custody X Change.

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