Find out who can file for child custody

Learn about who can file for child custody or parenting time, who has custody before going to court, and what a child custody order can decide.

Table of Contents

Who can file for child custody?

Either or both parents can file for sole or shared custody in Massachusetts. For information about child custody when you're not a parent, please see information about caregivers and guardians.

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. 

Who has child custody before going to court?

  • If the parents aren't married — The mother has sole legal and physical custody of her child until a court orders otherwise.
  • If the parents are married — Both parents share legal custody of the child and equal rights to parenting time until a court orders otherwise or they agree on a parenting schedule/plan that's approved by the court. This means that both you and your spouse have equal rights to make major decisions about your child’s life. This may change after a court hearing on custody. 

What will a child custody order decide?

One or both parents can ask the court to make decisions for them by seeking a court order for custody and parenting time. A child custody order can decide:

  • The parenting schedule, which will include details of how much time the child physically lives with each parent. This can be referred to as parenting time or physical custody.
  • How the parents make important decisions for the child, which is called legal custody.

The court will always consider what is in the best interest of the child to make its decision. This means that the judge will focus on what is best for the child, not what is best for either parent.

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