Types of Custody Arrangements

There are four different types of legally defined custody arrangements in Massachusetts law. Parents can make their own arrangements within these definitions and draft an agreement about custody and parenting time.  The Judge will review their agreement to determine if it is in the “best interest” of the child or children.   For more information about shared parenting, see  Planning for Shared Parenting pdf format of AFCC Guide for Parents Living Apart
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The four types of custody arrangements defined by Mass. General Laws chapter 208, section 31 are:  

  • “Sole legal custody” means that one parent has the right and responsibility to make major decisions regarding the child, including decisions about education, medical care, religion, and emotional development.
  • “Shared legal custody” means both parents are continually involved in and responsible for major decisions regarding the child, including matters of education, medical care, and emotional, moral and religious development.  
  • “Sole physical custody” means that a child lives with one parent, subject to reasonable visitation by the other parent, unless the court decides that such visitation would not be in the best interest of the child.
  • “Shared physical custody” means that a child has periods of living with each parent so that the child has frequent and continued contact with both parents.

What is the Difference between Child Custody and Visitation?

“Visitation” allows a parent who does not have primary physical custody to spend time with or “visit” the child.  Where the visits take place, how often the visits take place, and whether or not the visits need to be supervised by another adult, can be determined by an agreement of the parents, subject to approval by the court.  If they parents cannot agree, it will all be determined by the court.  

Do I need a lawyer?

You do not need a lawyer to file but it is highly recommended that you get a lawyer if you can, especially if the other parent has one. Custody cases can be complicated, and it is helpful to have someone guide you through the process.  This can be especially important if you have concerns about your safety or the safety of your child.

See Finding a Lawyer for assistance.

If you plan to file for custody on your own, you may want to read the informational manual called Representing Yourself in a Civil Case. Even if you plan on representing yourself, you may want to consider having a lawyer review your papers before you file them. Taking steps to avoid mistakes can help save you time and may improve your chances of success.

Additional Reading

You can read more about custody and visitation at MassLegalHelp.org and the Trial Court Law Libraries .