Court Process: 7 Steps to Custody in Massachusetts

While there are seven main steps to litigating child custody in Massachusetts, not every case follows the exact same path. Depending on your family's circumstances and your court, you may see steps rearranged or added in.

You can use mediation or another alternative dispute resolution method to help you reach a settlement agreement. Those options follow separate processes.

If you agree to settle with the other parent, jump to Step 7.

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Step 1: Preparation

Do your research and consider your options. Ideally, how would you divide legal custody? Will you request a sole or shared parenting schedule?

It's a good idea to meet with a lawyer to develop a strategy. If you're unable to hire one, at least do a free or low-cost consultation for advice. Self-representing parents should familiarize themselves with court rules, as the court will treat them like lawyers.

Step 2: Opening a case

If you're divorcing or annulling, open a case with the Probate and Family Court in the county where you and your spouse lived together, if either of you still lives there. Otherwise, open the case where either of you currently lives.

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

Once the case is open, you'll need to serve the other parent to officially notify them. They'll have 20 days to file a response.

Some cases: Emergency orders hearing

If your child is at risk of being harmed or removed from the state, you can request an accelerated hearing to decide if an emergency order is necessary.

Some accelerated hearings are held ex parte, meaning the other parent is not present. If the judge issues an emergency order at an ex parte hearing, the other parent can plead their case at a second hearing held within 10 days, where the judge may extend, terminate or modify the order.

Some cases: Parenting class

All divorcing parents are required to attend an approved parenting class. They have 30 days to register after the initial paperwork in the case is served. Judges can waive the requirement if parents face special circumstances, such as language barriers.

In other custody cases, the judge may or may not order parents to attend.

Classes cost $80 per person, and parents don't have to go together. After finishing the class, they each receive a certificate of completion. When someone can't attend in person, the judge may have them watch a video and complete a questionnaire instead.

Step 3: Discovery

Discovery is when both sides gather information from each other to help build their cases. This can begin early in the court process and continue until trial.

As part of discovery, both parents must complete financial statements in the first 45 days of their case. Any parent with an income greater than $75,000 a year completes the long-form financial statement, whereas any parent making less than $75,000 completes the short-form financial statement.

The two primary parts of discovery are interrogatories and depositions.

Interrogatories are questions parents and witnesses answer in writing. They often include a request for other documents, such as medical records or text messages. Parties must respond to these requests within 30 days.

Depositions are interviews conducted under oath. Attorneys ask questions of parents or their witnesses, who are required to answer. When crafting their questions, lawyers often focus on information gleaned from interrogatories.

Some cases: Alternative dispute resolution and early settlement

Parents can choose to use an alternative dispute resolution method (ADR method) offered by the court to help them reach a settlement agreement. The court offers seven types of ADR, including some for free. Mediation is the most common.

Divorcing or separating parents can choose to enter the early settlement process, a more structured approach to ADR, in the first 60 days of their case.

In early settlement, parents undergo a brief discovery period to learn about each other's stance. Then they attend a screening session to help them choose a type of ADR. If they don't reach a full agreement with that method, they move on to a settlement conference, where they try to resolve outstanding issues.

Step 4: Hearings

At a hearing, parents briefly present arguments and evidence so the judge can determine what to do next. Most cases will have at least one hearing, often for temporary custody and child support orders. However, more contentious cases might have upwards of ten.

After reviewing the facts, the judge can take several actions, including:

Hearings are typically scheduled at the request of a parent, though the judge can order them based on circumstances in your case.

Step 5: Pre-trial conference

Before their pre-trial conference, each parent submits a memo detailing their plans for trial — evidence they plan to present, objections they plan to make, etc.

At the conference, the judge encourages the parents once more to settle, which they often do. If not, they use the conference to set ground rules for trial.

There's often a waiting period between the conference and the trial due to court schedules.

Step 6: Trial

If parents can't settle, they ultimately end up in trial.

At trial, both parties have the opportunity to explore their evidence in its entirety and question witnesses in front of the judge.

Most trials resolve after a single day, but they can go longer if needed. At the end of the trial, the judge announces their decisions.

Step 7: Final judgment

After making a decision at trial or approving a settlement, the judge signs a final judgment, which includes a parenting plan and parenting schedule. All this details the legal terms parents must follow until the court approves a modification or the child legally becomes an adult. (Some child support orders can last into adulthood.)

If you believe there was an error, you have 30 days after the judgment to appeal to a higher court.

Throughout your case

During the custody process, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft parenting schedules, track your time with your child, and more.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of this in one place.

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, a digital journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to custody.

Throughout your case, take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts.

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