How Child Custody Is Determined In Massachusetts
Ending a serious relationship comes with a myriad of emotions and complicated issues to resolve, such as joint bank accounts, a shared home, and most importantly, custody of shared children. Understanding how child custody decisions are made in Massachusetts may help you prepare for the process and potential outcome in your unique situation.
Mediation for Separating or Divorcing Parents
The first step following the decision to separate is making an effort to create a parenting agreement that satisfies both parents. Because these decisions can be emotionally-charged in a relationship that’s already under stress, many separating parents benefit from mediation.
During mediation, a qualified, unbiased third party assists the parents in resolving their differences and compromising to create a parenting plan that works for both of them. For example, one parent may request full custody with visitation for the other parent every other weekend and $2,000 in child support (among other things). The mediator will bring the request to the other parent and find out which terms they’re willing to accept and come back to the first parent, repeating the process until terms that are agreeable to both parties are reached. In this case, the final outcome may be less for each parent than they initially demanded but enough to satisfy both.
When Mediation is Unsuccessful
Mediation isn’t always successful; it requires full participation from both parties and willingness to both understand the needs of other parties involved and compromise to come to middle ground. When mediation doesn’t work, the case moves to court.
Custody Arrangements in Massachusetts
In Massachusetts, the following custodial arrangements exists:
- Sole legal custody, in which one parent has both the responsibility and the right to make decisions regarding the child or children’s medical care, education, and moral, religious, and emotional development
- Shared legal custody, in which the major decisions must be made by both parents together
- Sole physical custody, in which the child or children live with one parent and are granted visitation with the non-custodial parent
- Shared physical custody, in which the child or children share their time between parents, living with both parents during scheduled times
Parents’ Rights in Massachusetts
Once an action has been filed, upon the request of one party, the judge will generally enter a temporary order for shared legal custody to ensure the parents know how to proceed until a final decision is made. If either parent has a confirmed history of abuse or neglect of the child(ren), the judge may enter a temporary order issuing sole legal custody to one parent for the child(ren)’s safety and well-being until a final decision is reached.
In standard cases, the rights of each parent are considered equal. Decisions about custody are based on the welfare and happiness of the shared children. Other factors that influence custody decisions in Massachusetts include:
- whether or not the child(ren)’s mental, physical, emotional, or moral health suffered as a result of any past or present living conditions with either parent
- whether either parent or live-in family members abuse drugs or alcohol
- whether the parties are willing and able to work together for the child’s benefit, based on each party’s level of cooperation in the past
- whether either party has deserted the child(ren) in the past
Components of a Legal Custody Arrangement
Decisions made by the court (or agreed upon by parents) must encompass the child(ren)’s: residence, education, healthcare, and visitation/custody schedule that covers holidays and school vacations. Additionally, the custody agreement should outline how the parties should resolve disputes when they are unable to come to an agreement outside of court.
It’s important to note than unless a non-custodial parent has received an order to vacate or other unique circumstances exist, both the custodial and non-custodial parent should legally have access to the child(ren)’s medical, academic, and other health or legal records of the child.
Other decisions that are often made during this process include decisions about child support, health insurance, medical expenses, and education or childcare expenses. In addition, parents should determine and include in their agreement who has the right to claim the child(ren) on their tax returns and on what schedule (parent A on odd years and parent B on even years, for example).