Massachusetts Child Custody and Visitation Laws

“The arrangements that couples make in order to maintain civility in the midst of their journey to divorce are often most elaborate when the professed top priority is to protect a child.” ― John Irving

Divorce is rarely easy, and even less so when it comes to custody and visitation arrangements for children. In Massachusetts, the top priority of the courts is to determine arrangements that are “in the best interests of the child”, but that may not always be as straightforward as it seems. This is not the time to try and do it yourself. Instead, seek competent legal representation and hire an attorney.

Massachusetts recognizes shared legal custody, sole legal custody, shared physical custody and sole physical custody, as defined under General Laws Chapter 208, s. 31. When a couple files for divorce, both parents are automatically granted temporary shared legal custody. This allows both parents to have equal responsibility (and rights) concerning major decisions like medical care, education and religious development. During what can be contentious times, differing ideas about the schooling or religious upbringing of children can surface. Having an attorney can make sure that these discussions and decisions remain on track and comply with the law.

In cases of where temporary shared legal custody may not be best for the child, like in cases of abuse or neglect, the court has to consider “all relevant facts”. Lawyers can advocate for the child by presenting legal proof of past instances or patterns of abuse.

Physical custody relates to the time one parent spends with their children. Unlike legal custody, there is no presumption that parents must share physical custody equally. Most parents will need to establish a parenting schedule to clearly define where the child will be on which days and at which times. It often also details who is responsible for transportation to and from visitation events. The schedule will vary depending on many factors under the umbrella of what is in the children’s “best interests”, including the age and needs of the children, the historical role each parent undertook as caretaker, the location of the children’s school, the distance between the parent’s current residences, how well the parents can communicate with one another, among other issues. In some cases parents will share time equally, in other cases the parenting schedule will provide more time with one parent than another. Here too, a lawyer can help ensure the schedule is fair and expectations are reasonable for both parties.

In some instances, the court may agree to “reasonable visitation” where arrangements remain flexible and parents work them out among themselves. This requires an extraordinary amount of amicability and communication between parents though. If things go wrong, or one parent fails to hold up their end of the bargain, the lack of a fixed schedule to refer to can be more than frustrating.

Don’t leave matters of child custody and visitation to chance in Massachusetts. Hire a knowledgeable family law attorney to make sure your rights and responsibilities are clearly defined and protected.