Guide Filing for child custody or parenting time in Massachusetts

Learn how to file for child custody or parenting time, what forms you'll need, and where to file.

Table of Contents

Eligibility

6 months how long your child must have lived in the state for you to file for custody here

Either or both parents can file for sole or shared custody in Massachusetts.

If the parents aren't married, the father must first establish paternity before seeking custody of his child. A judge may establish paternity if one parent files for paternity in court, or if both parents sign and file a voluntary acknowledgement form, which the father may have already signed when the child was born.

Your child must have lived in Massachusetts for at least 6 months immediately before you file for custody. This is called the home state rule. There may be exceptions to the home state rule when the child has lived in a different state with 1 parent. You should talk to a lawyer if you have questions about whether Massachusetts is the right state to file your case.

Getting a lawyer

You don't need a lawyer to file for child custody, but it's highly recommended that you get one if you can, especially if the other parent has one. Custody cases can be complicated, and it's helpful to have someone guide you through the process. This can be especially important if you have concerns about your safety or your child’s safety. See Finding a lawyer for more information.

If you plan to file for custody on your own, you may want to read 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.

Forms to file

If you're married

  • If you're married and want to divorce your spouse — You can file for custody of your child at the same time. See divorce for more information.
  • If you're married but don’t live with your spouse (or want to live apart from your spouse) — You can file for custody of your child and get support at the same time. See separate support for more information.

If you're unmarried

General forms

Regardless of whether you're married or unmarried, you may also need to file:

Fees

Fee Cost
Divorce & child custody filing fee $215
Support, custody, parenting time, separate support, or paternity filing fee $115
Summons fee $5

You'll also need to file a fee for the sheriff or constable, which varies.

Ways you can file

1. In person

To file in person, file for custody in the Probate and Family Court in the appropriate county.

  • If you're filing for custody through a divorce — If you or your spouse lives in the county where you lived together, file for divorce at the Probate and Family Court in that county. Otherwise, file in the county where you or your spouse live now.
  • For all other cases — File in the county where the child lives.

Once you find the correct court, go to the register’s office 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.

2. By mail

To file by mail, complete the required forms and mail them to the appropriate Probate and Family Court.

  • If you're filing for custody through a divorce — If you or your spouse lives in the county where you lived together, file for divorce at the Probate and Family Court in that county. Otherwise, file in the county where you or your spouse live now.
  • For all other cases — File in the county where the child lives.

Call the court before filing to get more details about filing by mail.

Key Actions for Ways you can file

Serving the complaint for custody

Once you've filed for custody, you must let the other parent know that you've filed a complaint for custody with the court. See service of process in the courts for more information on how this process works.

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 will be your proof to the judge that the other parent received the complaint. File the proof of service in person or by mail with the court. Make sure you make a copy to keep for yourself.

Key Actions for Serving the complaint for custody

Appearing 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 don't 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 they may have a lawyer present. The judge will ask you both 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 help you and the other parent come to an agreement. Most custody and parenting time 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 they agree that it's in the best interests of the child.

You aren't required to reach an agreement with the other parent. If you're afraid of the other parent, or if you're seeking or have a 209A abuse prevention order (restraining order) against the other parent, you don't have to meet in the same room as them. Make sure you notify the court staff as soon as you arrive in court that you don't want to meet with the other parent.

Additional Resources for Appearing in front of the judge

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