How matters of child custody are decided in a Massachusetts divorce

Posted by Geoffrey E. SpoffordDec 13, 20130 Comments

Massachusetts judges have wide discretion to determine all relevant factors impacting children in custody cases.

Massachusetts child custody law is child centered and laser focused on the best interests of each unique child. Massachusetts gives state court judges wide discretion to take into account any and all factors they think are relevant and important when making custody decisions that meet each particular child's needs.

Commonwealth courts recognize that no custody decision is perfect, but that the judge must look at the choice that best ensures the child's well-being and supports healthy future development.

Many states have statutes that contain specific lists of factors judges must individually consider in each custody case (plus whatever is relevant), but Massachusetts leaves the entire choice of relevant factors to the judge in each case, although the judge must determine all relevant factors. Massachusetts law does set out more specific judicial guidance though when domestic violence and abuse are involved.

Massachusetts family law does contain the following guidance for judges in custody matters:

  • Parents have equal rights unless there has been "misconduct."
  • Children's "happiness and welfare" drive the custody decision.
  • The court must look at whether the child's present or past living conditions "adversely affect ... physical, mental, moral or emotional health."
  • No presumption exists in favor of or against shared legal or physical custody.

The framework of custody is a determination of physical custody, or with which parent the child lives and receives parental supervision (usually subject to visitation by the other parent) and a determination of legal custody, or which parent has the right and duty to make life-changing decisions for the child like those involving "education, medical care and emotional, moral and religious development."

Either type of custody can be solely held by one parent alone or shared between them. The judge must make written findings if he or she orders shared legal or physical custody if there was a restraining order against a parent.

As a practical matter, parents ending a marriage may be able to negotiate a marital settlement agreement in the divorce without going to trial that includes a joint decision about the terms of custody and visitation. This is submitted to the judge in the divorce, who has the power to disapprove the custody arrangement if he or she believes it is not in the child's best interest.

This article just scratches the surface of the many issues in a Massachusetts child custody case and in the cases and statutes of the commonwealth. Anyone in Massachusetts facing matters or custody or visitation should obtain legal advice from an experienced family lawyer like one from the law firm of Lian Zarrow in Worcester.

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