Do Fathers Have Legal Rights in Massachusetts?

Fathers who are facing a divorce are often understandably worried about what their rights are for custody. Depending on their marital status, they may be right to be concerned. Marriage makes a difference in the eyes of Massachusetts family law courts.

  • Married to the mother of the child. The courts will likely assume you’re the child’s father if you’re married to the mother. Because being married indicates that the parents lived together, the law tends to view the parents as equals. 
  • Unmarried. This can be a more complicated situation. In these cases, the father needs to prove that they’re the biological father and that they have a relationship with the child, especially if he doesn’t live with the child. That can make it more difficult for the father to assert his rights.  

If I’m Not Married to the Mother of My Child, How Can I Prove I’m the Father?

The easiest way is to fill out a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parenting form with the mother. When both sign the form agreeing that you’re the father, that’s usually acceptable to the court.

If the mother won’t participate in the paperwork and refuses to acknowledge you as the father, your other option is to pursue DNA testing through the courts.

What Types of Custody Are Available in Massachusetts?

People often think there’s only one kind of child custody, which is who the child lives with. But there are actually two distinct types of child custody offered.

Physical Custody

This is what people traditionally think of as child custody. Today, it’s increasingly referred to as parenting time. It can be arranged as joint physical custody, where the parents share physical custody by either having the child move back and forth between the parents’ homes or by having the child stay in one home which the parents take turns staying in. It’s not necessarily an exact 50/50 share. Joint physical custody is preferred by Massachusetts courts when feasible because they see having both parents actively involved in the child’s life as in the child’s best interests.

However, there are instances when the courts will award sole physical custody to one parent, meaning they have the child 100% of the time.

Legal Custody

This type of custody has nothing to do with where the child lives. Instead, it covers the critical decisions that parents must make while raising their children. That includes everything from medical care to education to religious upbringing (if applicable) to extracurriculars and summer camps to traveling. It does not include minor daily decisions, such as if the child can have a friend over to play.

As with physical custody, legal custody can be either joint or sole. Either the parents share the important decisions, or one parent has full authority.

When Looking at Custody, Do Massachusetts Courts Prefer Mothers?

Not necessarily. Above all, the court will prioritize what’s in the child’s best interests over either the mother’s or father’s preferences. That means that if the father can demonstrate paternity and document being present in their child’s life, whether by living with them at least part-time, regularly spending time with them, attending school events, taking them to doctor appointments, etc., the court is more likely to say that the father is an integral part of the child’s life and make custody decisions accordingly. 

However, especially for unwed fathers, it may take more persuasion to convince the court that the father should have equal rights. Besides establishing paternity through the Voluntary Acknowledgment of Parenting form or a court-ordered DNA test, there are some things unmarried fathers should do to be able to prove to the court that having joint custody is in the child’s best interests.

  • Maintain an active relationship with the child. Being regularly involved in the child’s life can be convincing to the court.
  • Maintain an active and cordial relationship with the child’s mother. Even if you’re not married, living together, or even a couple anymore, having a constructive relationship where you’re willing to compromise at times if it’s best for the child says a great deal to the court.
  • Keep a journal or log of your involvement. Note every time you care for the child, go to appointments or events with them, and get photos as often as possible. 
  • If your child is school-age, maintain contact with their teachers (and document that as well). Prioritize attending school events, including concerts or parent-teacher conferences, as much as possible. 

If you’re unsure of your status as an unmarried father and what your rights might be, it’s crucial to contact an experienced child custody attorney as soon as possible to examine the specifics of your case and provide advice that could help. Don’t try negotiating child custody on your own. The laws are complex. You need someone in your corner. 

What Should I Do if I’m Getting Divorced and Have Concerns About My Rights as a Father?

Call Martino Law Group as soon as possible at 781-531-8673 to schedule a free initial consultation. Divorce is considered to be one of life’s most stressful situations, and it’s even more so when children and the related custody issues are involved. Our team of experienced, knowledgeable child custody attorneys understands your concerns. We can guide you through the specifics of your case and determine what approach may lead to the best possible outcomes in terms of preserving your rights as a father.