Couples who have minor children must agree on a parenting plan if they decide to divorce. When they cannot negotiate an independent custody agreement, they can ask the Massachusetts court to make a determination.

Before filing a divorce petition, it is important to understand the state’s child custody process.

Custody definitions

Massachusetts law distinguishes between physical and legal custody. In general, one parent has sole physical custody while the other has significant visitation time, though parents can also decide to share physical custody equally.

With legal custody, the parent may contribute to important decisions involving the child, including religious upbringing, schooling and health care. Massachusetts courts may order either sole or shared legal custody.

Custody and parenting plan

In a divorce hearing, the judge will review the parents’ joint custody plan to ensure that it serves the child’s best interests. When parents cannot agree, the judge will review each plan to make a fair decision.

The parenting plan must include a detailed custody or visitation schedule which includes information about transportation for these visits. You may also want to include information about custody arrangements for holidays and school vacations.

Massachusetts courts believe that in most cases, the child benefits from regular contact and a strong relationship with both parents. However, the court may decide to award sole custody to one parent when he or she demonstrates a history of abuse or neglect by the other parent. Supervised visitation may be appropriate in some instances.

Once the state establishes a legal child custody order, parents can request a change only if a significant circumstantial change occurs or they believe the current order does not serve the child’s best interests.