Child custody decisions in Massachusetts state courts

Child custody in Massachusetts revolves around the children’s best interests.

Divorce can be uniquely stressful when children are involved. A father or mother facing the end of a marriage must consider what his or her relationship with the children will look like when all is said and done.

As soon as divorce becomes a possibility, parent should find a knowledgeable family law attorney for advice and education about the law governing child custody matters and how things are likely to play out in the particular family's situation. This understanding provides the basis for making smart decisions about how to proceed through the divorce process.

With offices in Worcester and Westborough, the law firm of Seder & Chandler, LLP, provides comprehensive legal services to family law clients in central Massachusetts facing divorce and child custody matters.

Massachusetts law establishes two kinds of parental custody, each of which can be jointly or solely held:

  • Legal custody: the "right and responsibility to make major decisions regarding the child's welfare including matters of education, medical care and emotional, moral and religious development."
  • Physical custody: the right to have the child live with him or her and of supervision (if one parent has sole physical custody, the other parent gets "reasonable visitation" if in the child's best interest)

In Massachusetts, as in other states, the question the court asks in child custody is: what is in the children's best interests? Parents have important legal rights vis-à-vis their children, but child custody law is more child centered than parent focused in crafting custody arrangements that best meet the kids' unique interests.

The parties may be able to negotiate a marital settlement agreement to settle the issues in the divorce, including custody. A negotiated settlement can be cheaper than litigation and the parties will each have input into the results. The agreement will still have to be approved as meeting the children's best interests by the judge in the divorce proceeding.

If the divorcing spouses cannot agree on child custody, the judge will decide the issue in a divorce trial. Massachusetts gives judges wide latitude to determine children's best interests and broad discretion to fashion an appropriate custody arrangement.

Courts consider many factors to determine children's best interests, and while many states' laws include a list of factors judges must consider, Massachusetts leaves it to the judge in each case to determine which factors are relevant such as:

  • Who is the primary caretaker
  • Children's feelings and preferences
  • Children's relationships with each parent
  • Parenting abilities
  • Children's unique needs
  • Stability of parental homes and jobs
  • Parents' work schedules
  • Parental lack of support for the children's relationship with the other parent
  • Parental ability to put children first
  • Parental availability to provide care versus hiring child care
  • History of abuse, neglect, substance abuse or similar dangerous behaviors
  • And more

Massachusetts law, however, does require a judge to consider evidence of a pattern of or serious incident of domestic or child abuse in a heightened manner. A finding that such abuse has occurred creates a rebuttable legal presumption against the perpetrator having any kind of custody.

This only introduces the complexities present in Massachusetts law of child custody and related matters. Skilled legal counsel can answer a parent's questions and provide informed representation and legal advocacy throughout the process.

Keywords: child custody, best interests, Massachusetts, divorce, parent, attorney, court, legal custody, physical custody, welfare, sole, joint, marital settlement agreement, judge, discretion, factors, abuse