How is child custody decided in Massachusetts?

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The dissolution of a marriage in Massachusetts can be a challenging experience for both spouses. While some desired changes might be prompting the divorce, some undesired changes might also result from a divorce. This may be especially true in a divorce when children are involved. Issues such as child custody and visitation rights will influence each parent's future relationship with the child.

Categories of child custody

Child custody is the most influential issue determining each parent's future relationship with the child. In Massachusetts, there are four distinct categories of child custody, according to state law and they are the following:

  • Physical custody, which represents the parent who will primarily live with the child.
  • Legal custody, which represents the authority to make decisions about the child's upbringing.
  • Sole custody, which gives one parent both physical and legal custody of the child.
  • Joint custody, which may come in multiple forms. In terms of physical custody, joint custody may consist of one parent with primary physical custody (who lives with the child) and the other parent with visitation rights. In terms of legal custody, both parents may share the legal decision-making authority over the child's upbringing.

Collaboration is ideal

Section 31 of Chapter 204 in the Massachusetts General Laws outlines the conditions for child custody / visitation schedules, which are commonly called parenting plans. As per state law, separating parents are able to deliberate among themselves, possibly with the help of a mediator, to determine the most appropriate custody arrangement. Since parents know their children best, undertaking this process collaboratively is the ideal scenario. After agreeing on a child custody option, parents submit the plan to the court, which will review it and issue a decision.

Factors influencing child custody

When deciding on child custody cases, the Massachusetts Court System values one criterion above all others: what is in the best interests of the child. A task force was formed in recent years in Massachusetts to help parents form custody and visitation plans to submit to the court. One of the products of the task force was a list of factors with which those plans should be consistent. Several of those factors relate to the unique circumstances of the child. Developmental age and abilities, physical and emotional health, and adaptability to change are among those factors.

Several other factors relate specifically to the parents, such as parenting skills already in place, availability and location. The degree of tension between the parents is also a factor considered by the court to determine what arrangement will be in the child's best interests. Due to the consequences of child custody outcomes, separating parents may wish to consult with a family law attorney.