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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.
For all of the above, you may also need to file:
You'll also need to file the fees listed below, in addition to a fee to the sheriff or constable, which varies.
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.
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.
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.
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.