Child Custody in Massachusetts: Deciding What's Best for Your Children
One of the most important aspects to any divorce in which children are involved is the determination of child custody and support. Each family is unique in this respect, but all must come to grips with questions such as where and with whom will the children live? Who will make important decisions about their lives? What contact will they have with each of the two parents? How will their financial needs be met?
Hopefully, the parents can weigh these questions together and try to reach the best possible arrangement for the children. If not, then the custody issue must go to court. But even in this case, both parents must constantly convey love and reassurance to their child as well as respect for each other.
Legal custody means who makes the major decisions about issues such as education, health, medical care, emotional development and religion. (An important exception is that even a parent with sole legal custody can't take the children from Massachusetts permanently without the prior permission of the other parent or court.) Physical custody refers to the time the child spends with each parent. Joint legal custody, in which the decision-making responsibility is shared by both parents, is quite common.
Less common is joint physical custody, in which children spend considerable periods of time, perhaps several weeks or months of each year, alternately with each parent. Generally, one of the parents is awarded sole physical custody of the children (judges will try to keep siblings together). This means that the children will live with the "custodial parent", who is in charge of making day to day decisions concerning the child. The "noncustodial parent" is granted visiting rights, which might mean that the child spends several hours, weekends or some vacation time with that parent. Supervised visitation may be ordered if there is any concern over the child's safety.
Child custody laws in Massachusetts focus on the needs of the child and who can best meet those needs. Thus, the court seeks to provide the best and least disruptive living arrangements for the children of a divorce while considering the importance of a child's continuing relationship with both parents. Some important factors that will be weighed are the child's well being; adjustment to family, school, and community; relationship with the parents; history of abuse, drugs or abandonment; which parent has been the primary care-giver. The law in Massachusetts does not grant preference to one parent over another based on gender.
Although you will have to document your work and financial situation, income is not necessarily a deciding factor, as judges can award child support in order to make up for income differences between the custodial and the noncustodial parent.
In Massachusetts, the court appoints a "Guardian ad litem," who is in charge of evaluating the child's situation and making recommendations as to the best possible arrangement for the child. This is usually a psychologist who, as part of the evaluation, will meet with each parent and observe their interaction with the child. Be prepared to give your views on child discipline and truthfully state your strong and weak points as a parent (and what you are doing to correct the latter).
Be prepared also to answer specific questions about your role in your child's life. Do you help your children prepare for school or bed? Cook for them? Wash their clothes? Meet with teachers? Take them out? Where? What about doctor's and dentist's appointments? Do you go to their school and sports events? Plan their birthday parties? Know their friends? Read to them? Spend time with them? These are roles of the primary caregiver, and they carry a great deal of weight in the custody decision.
Whatever the custody decision is, remember that you are both parents and always will be. As such, your role, whether custodial or noncustodial, is to provide your children with unfailing support, love and reassurance throughout the divorce process and beyond.