Filing for a child custody order can be a complex process and can require difficult decisions to be made by parents who may also be filing for divorce. Child custody laws differ slightly by state, and this post provides a general overview of important child custody laws in Massachusetts, covering the types of child custody arrangements, how child custody is determined, child custody for unmarried parents, and modifying a child custody order.

Types of Child Custody Arrangements In Massachusetts

In the state of Massachusetts, there are four different types of child custody arrangements that can be determined by court orders and given to parents or in certain cases, given to a third party who files for child custody.

  • Sole legal custody: Sole legal custody gives one parent the full rights and responsibility to make major decisions regarding the child’s welfare, including education, medical care, and emotional and moral development. 
  • Shared legal custody: Shared legal custody gives shared rights and responsibility to both parents in the decision making of child’s welfare, including education, medical care, and emotional and moral development.
  • Sole physical custody: Sole physical custody gives one parent physical custody of the child, meaning the child lives with and is supervised by one parent. In these cases, the court may give visitation rights to the other non-custodial parent, unless the visitation would not be serving the best interest of the child.
  • Shared physical custody: Shared physical custody gives both parents the right to physical custody of the child for a certain period of time, meaning the child lives with and is supervised by each parent on a specific parenting schedule determined by the court order. This arrangement gives the child frequent and continued contact with both parents.

How Child Custody Is Determined In Massachusetts

In a child custody case, the court will consider many factors when determining a child custody order. Above all, the court will make a child custody decision in the best interest of the child. According to Massachusetts family court system, the following are six factors which Massachusetts courts will consider when determining a child custody order:

  • The child’s well-being
  • How the child is doing in school and the community
  • The child’s relationship with the parents and other family members
  • The parents’ history of abuse, drug use, or abandonment
  • Whether one parent has been the primary caregiver in the past
  • Depending on the age and maturity of the child, the child’s preference, although this is never the deciding factor

Child Custody Laws For Unmarried Parents

According to Massachusetts law, if the parents of a child are unmarried, the mother has sole legal and physical custody before going to court and until a court order determines otherwise. Before filing for a child custody case, the father must first establish paternity in order for the case to be considered by the court. After one parent files for paternity and it is established by a judge or if both parents sign a voluntary acknowledgement form, unmarried parents can file for custody over a child. 

Modifying A Child Custody Order in Massachusetts

In order to modify an existing child custody order in Massachusetts, a parent must begin by filing a “Complaint for Modification” form. For the court to approve a child custody or parenting time modification, the parent who is filing must be able to prove “a significant change in circumstances” since the judgment or temporary order was made and that the best interests of the child/children are not being met by the current custody arrangement. Either one parent can petition for a child custody modification or a change in parenting plan arrangement, or in the case that both parents agree, they can file for the change together. 


If you are planning on filing a child custody case, seeking help from a legal professional can be beneficial in many ways including ensuring a smooth and efficient process, avoiding any mistakes with legal forms, and reaching the best possible outcome for your child. The experienced Boston child custody lawyers at Wilkinson & Finkbeiner LLP understand the importance of child custody and visitation orders in family law and divorce cases and are committed to fighting for the best interest of your child. For more information and to find out how a Massachusetts family law and divorce attorney can help, visit