File for child custody or parenting time

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

Probate and Family Court

The Details

What you need

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 one parent. You should talk to a lawyer if you have questions about whether Massachusetts is the right state to file your case.

There are different forms you'll need to file for child custody depending on your situation.

  • 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 live apart from you 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, but your name isn't on the child’s birth certificate and there is no court order naming you as the father, you must file:
  1. The Complaint to Establish Paternity (CJD 106)
  2. A copy of the child’s birth certificate. This is available from the Registry of Vital Records if the child was born in Massachusetts.
  3. The Affidavit of Care and Custody (OCAJ-1)
  • If you're unmarried, but you and the other parent signed a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity or there is already a court order which says you're the father, you must file:
  1. The Complaint for Support-Custody-Parenting Time (CJD 109)
  2. A copy of the signed Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity
  3. The Affidavit of Care and Custody (OCAJ-1)

For all of the above, you may also need to file:

  1. The Motion for Temporary Orders (i.e. child custody, child support, spousal support, etc.) if you need a court order quickly. Fill in what you want the court to order. With this, you also need an Affidavit, where you explain to the judge what happened and when, and a Proposed Order.
  2. The Affidavit of Indigency and Supplement if you can't afford the fees. See indigency (waiver of court fees) for more information. 
  3. Financial Statements and applicable schedules. See Financial Statements for more information.
  4. The Child Support Guidelines Worksheet (CJD 304) if you're seeking support. See child support guidelines for more information.
  5. The Child Support Guidelines Deviation (CJD 305) if you don't think the child support guidelines should apply to your case.
  6. The Motion to Waive Attendance at a Parent Education Program (CJD 444) if you can't attend a parent education program.
  7. The Complaint for Contempt (CJD 103) if a parent isn't following a court order. 
  8. The Request for Limited Issues Settlement Conference (CJD 114) if the parents wish to get help from the court to come to an agreement.
  9. A Motion for Temporary Orders if you need the court to make a decision right away. See Request an immediate child custody or parenting time order for more information.

You'll also need to file the fees listed below, in addition to a fee to the sheriff or constable, which varies.  

Fees

Name Fee Unit
Divorce and child custody filing fee $215 each
Support-Custody-Parenting Time, Separate Support, or Paternity Filing Fee $115 each
Summons Fee $5 each

How to file

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, you file for divorce at the probate and family court in that county. Otherwise, you can file in the county where you or your spouse live now. For all other cases, you should file in the county where the child lives.

Once you find the correct 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.

To file by mail, complete the required forms and mail them to the appropriate court. If you're filing for custody through a divorce, if you or your spouse lives in the county where you lived together, you file for divorce at the probate and family court in that county. Otherwise, you can file in the county where you or your spouse live now. For all other cases, you should file in the county where the child lives.

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

Find your county Probate and Family Court.

 

Next steps

  1. Serve the complaint for custody on the other parent

    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.

  2. 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 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 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 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 he or she agrees 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 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 don't want to meet with the other parent.

More info

You don't need a lawyer to file for child custody, but it's highly recommended that you get a lawyer 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 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 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 time and may improve your chances of success.

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