Massachusetts Child Custody Laws


Area of Law: 

When a couple divorces and there is a minor child involved, the divorce decree will specify who has physical custody as well as legal custody of the child. Physical custody determines where and with whom the child will live. Legal custody specifies who has the legal right to make important decisions about the child related to issues such as education, religion, medical issues, and discipline. Spouses often reach an agreement regarding child custody on their own, but if they do not, Massachusetts courts will intervene and establish custody arrangements based on the best interests of the child. For a summary of divorce and child custody laws in Massachusetts, go to


There are typically several different custody arrangements that may be made for children of divorced parents. In most cases, courts will award physical custody to one parent with whom the child will live most of the time. The parent with physical custody, or the custodial parent, often shares legal custody, or the right to make decisions regarding the child, with the non-custodial parent. Many child custody arrangements involve joint custody in which the child spends a relatively equal amount of time with each parent. For information specific to Massachusetts, go to


According to, courts consider various factors when awarding child custody, most importantly the best interests of the child. This “best interest” standard varies state to state, but some of the most common standards applied by various states, like Massachusetts, include the following:


  • Wishes of the child (if he or she is old enough to capably express a reasonable preference)
  • Mental and physical health of the parents
  • Religion and/or cultural considerations
  • Need for the continuation of a stable home environment
  • Support and opportunity for interaction with members of the extended family of either parent
  • Interaction and interrelationship with other members of the household
  • Child's adjustment to his or her school and community
  • Age and sex of the child
  • Parental use of excessive discipline or emotional abuse
  • Evidence of parental drug, alcohol, or sex abuse


In the state of Massachusetts, when courts make custody determinations, they consider the happiness and welfare of the child, also taking into account whether the child's present or past living conditions have a negative impact on his or her physical, mental, moral, or emotional health. If both parents agree, the court may award joint custody unless, however, the court finds that joint custody is not in the best interest of the child. If the parents want to share custody but cannot reach an agreement, they are required to submit a shared parenting plan to the court. When looking at the happiness and welfare of the child, Massachusetts courts may consider the following factors:


  • Whether or not the child's present or past living conditions adversely affect his or her physical, mental, moral, or, emotional health
  • Whether any family member abuses alcohol or other drugs
  • Whether either parent has deserted the child
  • Whether either parent has committed any acts of domestic violence
  • Whether the parents have a history of being able and willing to cooperate in matters concerning the child.