No family law issues are quite as emotional as child custody and visitation. Whether you are going through a divorce or you and the other parent have decided to part ways, your rights as a parent could be at serious risk. But taking swift legal action can help ensure that your child’s best interests are protected. That’s where SederLaw’s Family Law & Probate practice comes in. We understand Massachusetts child custody and visitation laws and what it takes to build a successful case.
Different Types of Child Custody
Child custody in Massachusetts is actually divided into physical and legal custody. Physical custody concerns which parent the child lives with on a daily basis, as well as visitation with the other parent. Legal custody, meanwhile, relates to how authority over the child will be shared between the parents. Legal custody is therefore concerned with major issues that affect the child’s well-being, such as religious upbringing, education, and healthcare decisions.
There are also important distinctions between joint custody and sole custody. As the term suggests, joint custody means the parents share physical and/or legal custody of the child. However, it does not necessarily mean they share equal amounts of either. Courts generally prefer to award joint custody, unless there is a good reason not to (e.g. one parent is unfit). Sole custody means only one parent is given primary physical or legal custody, although the court may permit visitation rights to the other parent.
Understanding The Best Interests Standard
When Massachusetts judges make custody and visitation decisions of any kind, they are obligated by law to consider the child’s best interests first. This takes precedence over the wishes of the parents. Even the preferences of the child do not alone affect the judge’s decision.
The best interests standard essentially means that the child’s happiness and welfare are the ultimate objectives of the court’s action. But because every custody and visitation situation is different, there is no hard and fast rule about precisely what a judge will order in any given case. The individual facts of each custody matter will determine the outcome.
In deciding what is in the child’s best interests, a court will examine a number of factors such as:
- Which parent is more involved in the child’s daily life
- The child’s established routines and living patterns
- The child’s age and, if appropriate, what the child wants
- The child’s relationship with both parents
- Where the parents live if they don’t live together
- Which parent can best provide a safe, stable living environment for the child
- Any evidence of abuse or neglect of the child
- Any evidence that either parent has engaged in drug or alcohol abuse
- The physical and mental health of both parents
What Is A Parenting Plan?
Courts will generally expect both parents to submit a proposed parenting plan which contains rules and other agreed terms concerning the child. This plan, if approved by the court, will become a court order. Every parenting plan is different and must be developed with the specific facts of each custody case in mind. However, they usually include such matters as:
- Custody and visitation schedules, including each parent’s start and end day and time
- Holiday and vacation schedules
- Which parent will provide transportation for the child
- Which parent will be responsible for getting the child to his or her extracurricular activities
- Notice requirements for when a parent needs to alter custody or visitation plans
- Which parent will be responsible for making medical appointments for the child
- Which parent will take care of the child when he or she is sick and unable to attend school
- Communication between both parents and child
The court will review the proposed plan and ensure it is in the child’s best interests before approving it. If the parents cannot agree on the terms of the parenting plan, then the court will need to make the final decision. It will do so after considering the relevant evidence and the respective parents’ proposed schedules and terms. Regardless, once the parenting plan is entered as a court order, both parents must follow it or face possible contempt.
Filing For Child Custody
With few exceptions, a child must have lived in Massachusetts for at least six months prior to either parent filing for custody in the state. Either or both parents can seek joint or sole custody. If you are seeking child custody as part of a divorce action, you can file with the Probate and Family Court in the county in which you and your spouse lived together. Otherwise, you should file in the county where the child lives.
Your custody complaint, whether by itself or part of a larger divorce action, will need to state the grounds upon which you are seeking custody of the child. Once the appropriate forms are filed with the court, they will need to be served on the other parent.
How An Attorney Can Help
Having a knowledgeable family law attorney is essential to ensuring you properly allege all relevant facts for the court’s consideration. In addition to having a thorough grasp of the laws that affect custody and visitation, SederLaw assists clients with the following:
- Negotiating the terms of custody and visitation
- Developing a comprehensive parenting plan that contains the agreed-upon terms
- Representing you during mediation with the other parent’s attorney
- Litigating your case in court, in the event you and the other parent cannot agree on custody and visitation matters
- Modification of prior custody orders, judgments, and parenting plans
- Representing you during contempt proceedings for allegations made either against you or the other parent
Contact Our Worcester Child Custody And Visitation Rights Attorney
SederLaw understands what is at stake with your custody and visitation case. We bring our extensive experience to bear on every client matter we represent, with an eye toward working for the best possible outcome for you and your family. To learn more, connect with our Family Law & Probate team today.