Note: The steps below apply to getting an initial custody or visitation order. If you want to change an order you already received, see Changing Child Custody or Visitation.
Step 1: File the custody complaint in court
Go to the Register’s office at the Probate and Family Court and fill out a “complaint” and other required forms to start the case. The court will then issue a summons which is an official court paper that tells the other parent that you have filed a complaint with the court and that there will be a hearing on it. You can also complete the required forms and mail them to the court. Call the court before mailing to get more details about filing by mail.
You may also file a Motion for Temporary Orders if you need the court to make a decision right away. See What if I Need an Order Right Away? for more information.
Step 2: Serve the complaint for custody on the other parent
Next, you must let the other parent know that you have filed a complaint for custody with the court. See Service of Process for more information.
After the papers are hand-delivered to the other parent, be sure to get back the form showing “proof of service” from the person who delivered the papers. This important piece of paper will be your proof to the judge that the other parent received the complaint. File (in person or by mail), the “proof of service” with the court. Make sure you make a copy first and keep the copy.
Step 3: Appear in front of the judge
After the complaint is filed, your case will be assigned to a judge. Ask the court about your first hearing date. If you file a motion for temporary orders you need to get a date from the court and notify the other parent of that date. If you do not file a motion for temporary orders, ask the court how to get your hearing date.
At the hearing, you will appear in front of the judge. The other parent may be present, and he or she may have a lawyer present. The judge will ask you and your spouse some questions about your complaint and motions.
You may be asked to meet with a trained court staff person who will try to help you and the other parent come to an agreement. You may also be referred to other types of “alternative dispute resolution.” There may be mediators or conciliators at the courthouse who volunteer to assist you and the other parent come to an agreement. Most custody and visitation disputes are resolved by an agreement between the parents. If you do reach an agreement, the judge will review it and make it a court order if he or she agrees that it is “in the best interests of the child.”
- Note: You are not required to reach an agreement with the other parent. If you are afraid of the other parent, or if you are seeking (or have) a 209A abuse prevention order (restraining order) against the other parent, you do not have to meet in the same room as the other parent. Make sure you notify the court staff (in the courtroom or in the “Probation” office) as soon as you arrive in court that you do not wish to meet with the other parent.
If you need a custody order right away, you can file a Motion for Temporary Orders. This is a way to get a temporary order of custody while you wait for your case to work its way through the court system. For example, you may want to ask the court to determine temporary custody, set up a visitation schedule or decide on child support. Generally, you can file a motion at the same time you file your complaint, or before the court makes its final judgment.
To file a Motion for Temporary Orders, you must file:
If you filed a motion for temporary orders, the court will set a date for a temporary order hearing. The temporary order you receive will stay in place until another order or the court’s final judgment replaces it.
Establishing Child Custody
- Seeking an Initial Child Custody or Visitation Order
- Who Has Custody Before Going to Court?
- Who Can File for Custody?
- What if I Have Been Abused?
- Where Do I File for Custody?
- What Forms Do I File for Custody or Visitation?
- How to File for Custody or Visitation
- How Does a Judge Decide Child Custody or Visitation?
- More Information About Custody and Visitation Orders
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