Modifying Child Custody Arrangements in Massachusetts

Why divorce doesn’t always end disagreements over parental rights


Massachusetts encourages parents to reach voluntary agreements regarding the custody of minor children. If a court is called upon to decide custody, however, state law requires the judge to consider a number of factors, including the child's relationship with each parent, each parent's ability to provide for the child's financial and emotional needs, and any potential adjustment the child may need to make to a new home or school. The judge may then choose to award sole or joint custody.

When Circumstances Change

If one or both parents are dissatisfied with the terms of the court's custody order, they can seek to modify it. If both parents seek the modification, they can petition the court together. Otherwise, there is a contested proceeding before the judge.

Massachusetts law states a court may only modify a child custody order if two conditions are met:

  • There is a “material and substantial change in the circumstances of the parties”
  • Modification is by necessity “in the best interests of the children”

What constitutes a “material and substantial change” will, by necessity, depend on the facts of a particular case, but here are some examples:

  • One parent moves out of state, making joint custody no longer practical
  • One parent repeatedly interferes with the custodial rights of the other parent
  • The existing custody arrangements unduly interfere with the children's education or extracurricular activities
  • The child's current home environment is a danger to his or her health and safety
  • One parent is no longer able to properly care for the child due to drug or alcohol addiction

Where Do You Seek a Change in Custody?

Modifying a child custody order may be complicated if the parents no longer reside in the same county or state as they did when they divorced. The basic rules governing where to file a petition for modification of child custody works are:

  • If both parents currently live in the same Massachusetts county, the petition should be filed in that county
  • If both parents live in Massachusetts but in different counties from each other, the petition should be filed in the county where the original divorce case was heard
  • If one parent lives outside of Massachusetts, jurisdiction over child custody modifications is based on the child's “home state,” which is normally the state the child lived in for the six months preceding the petition.

A Massachusetts family law attorney can advise you on the specifics of how to proceed with (or oppose) a petition to modify child custody. An attorney may also be able to assist in negotiating a voluntary change with the other parent so as to avoid a lengthy court battle.


A Massachusetts court may alter a child custody order only if there is a “material and substantial change in the circumstances of the parties,” and modification is in the child's best interests.

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