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How does domestic violence affect a Massachusetts custody case?

Every child custody case, no matter where or when it occurs, is decided based on what’s in the best interests of the child. Most states have a fairly specific list of things that family judges are supposed to consider (although there’s often leeway for judges to consider things that are not on the list, as well.)

Back in December, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued a ruling that clarifies a judge’s obligation to consider incidents of domestic violence that occurred in the household — even if the custody case is being decided after a couple’s marriage is long over. In the ruling, the court said, “…the plain language of (the law) requires a Probate and Family Court judge to have a complete view of abuse when determining whether a custody decision is in the child’s best interest.”

That ruling has massive legal ramifications beyond the case to which it applied. In the past, judges generally considered allegations of domestic violence in a marriage during initial custody battles but may have been reluctant to do so in subsequent ones. According to the lawsuit that brought the issue to the court, judges were “all over the map” when it came to whether they’d even look at what happened during a marriage in subsequent custody actions.

Now, a past history of domestic violence will never really be “in the past,” and there will be a presumption that it’s generally not better to place a child with a parent who has been abusive without some kind of justification. That could be a game-changer for a lot of parents who are either seeking custody of their children in a post-divorce motion or hoping to retain custody.

It’s important to discuss any concerns you have about domestic violence with your attorney if you’re seeking a modification of a custody order. As this news shows, incidents in the past could still be relevant.