How Does Massachusetts Determine If a Parent Is Unfit?

During heated custody cases, disgruntled ex-spouses may throw around the phrase “unfit parent.” If you are in the midst of a divorce or custody battle involving minor children, you should understand the legal standard for parental “unfitness” in Massachusetts.

What Is Parental Unfitness in Massachusetts?

The state of Massachusetts has deemed child custody a fundamental parental right. That is why courts rarely declare a parent unfit and instead award custody using the “best interest of the child” standard. The burden of proof for designating a parent as unfit is exceptionally high.

When accusations run rampant and a parent is accused of being unfit, Massachusetts family courts can assign a professional evaluator to the case. These experts conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether one parent should have sole custody of the child.

Massachusetts courts must see substantial evidence that someone cannot safely care for a child before designating them as “unfit.” These designations rarely occur in hearings between two biological parents. More often, the court may be inclined to find parental unfitness in cases that involve a non-parent guardian.

When Will a Massachusetts Family Court Deem a Parent Unfit?

The state of Massachusetts has outlined several factors that courts can use to determine unfitness in Mass. Gen. Laws ch.210, §3(c). These factors include:

  • Abandonment. A brief, temporary absence without intent to abandon will not make a parent unfit, but if a parent leaves a child without support and a responsible caregiver, they may be found to have abandoned the child.
  • History of Abuse. If a parent has abused or neglected the child or another immediate family member, they may be deemed unfit on these criteria alone.
  • History of Foster Care. If a child has been in foster care for at least six months, the situation could contribute toward a finding of unfitness. However, if a parent maintains “significant and meaningful contact” with the child or was not able to take advantage of support services, placement in foster may not have significant bearing on a fitness determination. 
  • Neglect of Parental Responsibilities. If a parent willfully failed to visit their child or neglected to pay child support, they may be deemed unfit.

A finding of unfitness will depend on the severity of the circumstances. In some cases, one of the statutory factors alone may be enough to cause a court to designate a parent as unfit. In other situations, a court will not rule that a parent is unfit unless several factors together indicate a pattern of unfit behavior. For instance, if the offending party cannot provide proper care for the child and has made no effort to remedy past problems, the combination of these factors could influence the court’s decision.

Contact Koiles Pratt Today for Help With Custody

Massachusetts child custody laws are complex, and it is important to present persuasive evidence to demonstrate to a court how your interests align with the best interests of your child. Having an experienced divorce and family law attorney in your corner can make all the difference.

The Koiles Pratt legal team can provide you with the right legal counsel in your time of need. Contact us today to learn how we can help.

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