Beginner’s Guide to Getting Divorced in Massachusetts
By law, most divorces follow the same general rules and procedures in Massachusetts.
This guide will help you understand what many of those rules and procedures are so that you can equip yourself with important information you’ll need to help you get through a divorce.
While all divorces share many things in common, every case is unique as well. That’s why, for your particular instance you should also get answers to your questions through other sources such as a family law attorney, your county courthouse, friends and relatives who have gone through a divorce, and online resources to help you deal with the financial, social and emotional challenges you’ll face along the way.
Here are some important things to know as you start working through the process.
- The differences between divorce, annulment and separation
- What are the grounds for divorce in Massachusetts?
- Deciding what kind of divorce you will go through
- The process of filing for divorce
- How to complete proof of service
- Filing for a divorce online
- Filing for divorce in Massachusetts without using a lawyer
- How much does divorce cost in Massachusetts?
- How long does it take to get a divorce?
- Should I retain the services of a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst?
- Bifurcation of Marital Status
- Can I cancel, refuse, contest, stop or reverse a divorce in Massachusetts?
- What is a divorce decree?
- What is a divorce certificate?
- Changing Your Name
- Bonus: Recommended Resources for a Better Divorce
The differences between legal separation, annulment and divorce in Massachusetts
Married couples can end their marriages through annulment or divorce in Massachusetts. Technically, legal separation is not allowed in the state, but a spouse who chooses to separate without getting a divorce can request a “judgment for separate support” if they are seeking child support and spousal support.
To start the process, you will need to complete the form called Complaint for Separate Support which is available on the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court website.
Some spouses do not want to get a divorce because of religious reasons, or it may allow one spouse to remain on the other’s health insurance. There may also be tax advantages in some cases as well.
In addition, if a person is not a U.S. citizen and they get a divorce, they run the risk of deportation. But with separate support, a noncitizen can still stay in the country even if they don’t live with their spouse.
Annulment. Annulments are allowed in Massachusetts, but you will need to provide proof that your marriage is either void or voidable. You must meet one of the criteria for annulment or you will have to go through a divorce instead.
If you weren’t legally allowed to marry in the first place and the state won’t approve such a marriage, it’s called a void marriage. If you weren’t legally permitted to marry because of a particular problem, but the state will allow you to choose to remain married, you have a voidable marriage.
Your marriage is void if:
- One of you was already married to someone else and the other didn’t know. This is referred to as bigamy. If a person knew their spouse was already married before they married them, then they must request a divorce, not an annulment.
- You married a close relative or a close relative by marriage. This is called incest, consanguinity, and affinity. In Massachusetts, you can’t marry your grandparents, step grandparents, parents, step parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren, or your spouse’s parents, grandparents, children, or grandchildren. However, a man can marry his son’s wife, and a woman can marry her husband’s father.
Your marriage is voidable if:
- One of the spouses didn’t have the mental capacity to consent to the marriage at the time. For example, if a spouse was drunk or mentally ill.
- One of the spouses is not physically capable of sexual intercourse.
- One of the spouses wasn’t old enough to get married. In Massachusetts, you need to be 18 years old to get married, unless you have permission from your parents and the court.
- There was fraud involved in getting married. Courts will only annul a marriage for a fraud that goes to the heart of the marriage itself. For example, annulments for fraud have been focused on sexual relations and the ability to have children. Courts have also found fraud where one person had purely ulterior motives for entering the marriage (i.e. if one person thought they were marrying for love, but the other person was only marrying them for immigration reasons).
Divorce. In Massachusetts, divorce is a permanent and legal end to a marriage. All ties are severed, assets are divided, custody and alimony issues are resolved, and each spouse goes their separate way after an Absolute Decree is issued by the courts.
What are the grounds for divorce in Massachusetts?
Massachusetts allows for both no-fault and fault-based divorces. In a no-fault divorce, a couple only needs to cite irreconcilable differences as the reason for ending a marriage.
In a fault-based divorce, the person filing for the divorce (the plaintiff) must prove that the defendant has committed one or more acts that by law, allow for a divorce to proceed. The grounds are governed by statute and include:
- Desertion for at least one year
- Addiction to drugs or alcohol
- Cruel and abusive treatment
- Refusal to support a spouse when able
- Confinement to a penal institution for five or more years.
What are your options for divorce?
It is in your best interests to fully understand all of your options when you are thinking about getting a divorce. The path that you ultimately take will be determined by the relationship you have with your spouse.
Deciding whether to pursue an uncontested divorce in Massachusetts or attempting to negotiate a settlement through a cooperative effort of some sort could save you a lot time and money, making it easier for you to transition to life as a single person.
Before we get into the details, there’s one thing I want you to keep in mind.
One type of divorce is not “better” than another. Divorce is not one size fits all.
I say this because it’s very important that you choose the process that will work best with your dynamic between you and your spouse. It will set the tone for your entire divorce.
Here are the types of divorce:
What I like to call the kitchen table divorce. This one is pretty straight forward. You don’t hire any professionals and attempt to resolve all your differences with your spouse. The biggest downside is you don’t know what you don’t know. I’d steer clear of this approach unless you don’t have kids or any money.
A far superior choice to DIY divorce. Navigating the divorce process and legal procedures can be a minefield. A good online divorce platform removes the guesswork. Through guided interviews, you’ll complete the forms while getting educated on the key legal issues in the process. This can be a great option if you have a relatively straightforward situation and you’re on the same page with your spouse.
The default option and also the most expensive. If you and your spouse can’t agree on one of the other options, then you’re headed for litigation. Litigation is an attorney-driven process. While the majority of cases settle before going to trial, that doesn’t mean litigation won’t wreak havoc on you and your kids.
Sometimes, however, it’s the only viable option. If your spouse has a high-conflict personality (narcissist, borderline, etc.) or there is domestic violence, litigation might be your only option. It’s also the right choice if your primary objective is to punish your spouse. As tempting as that might be, I encourage you to think about the big picture.
With mediation, you and your spouse retain a neutral professional (typically an attorney) to help facilitate agreement. The mediator will help you brainstorm options, understand each other’s perspectives, and make compromises to reach a resolution that you and your spouse can both live with.
Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t just mean that you and your spouse are going to work out your divorce “collaboratively.” There’s much more to it. Collaborative divorce is a structured process that takes a team approach. Divorce is much more than a legal process. It’s about money, kids, and emotions. That’s why a Collaborative team includes collaborative lawyers, a divorce coach, and a neutral financial specialist.
Unlike any other process, everyone commits not to go to court. The idea is that this removes the threat of litigation which fosters creative solutions and interest-based negotiation. It’s far and away the most supportive type of divorce.
Learn More: I’ve really just scratched the surface on the types of divorce. For a deep dive into the pros and cons of these options, be sure to check out our guide on the types of divorce.
What is the process of filing for divorce in Massachusetts?
You can go through a divorce in Massachusetts several possible ways, but there are some basic things are pretty much the same no matter type of divorce you choose.
Gather important information.
Save time, money and stress in your divorce by approaching this step in a timely and thorough way. It will take time to pull together your information, but it is vital that you do this without cutting corners. It’s the best way to make sure your rights are protected and to give yourself the possibility of achieving the best possible financial settlement with your spouse.
Starting early and being organized are keys to successfully completing this task.
Before you jump in to collecting financial information, take the following steps:
- Open a new checking and savings account in your name alone.
- Open a credit card in your name alone.
- Order a free credit report.
- Make a list of all the assets and liabilities that you’re aware of. Include any memberships, reward points, and other perks that may be considered as assets.
Okay, now it’s time to start gathering your information. Here’s a short-list of what you need:
- Tax returns (including W-2’s, K-1’s, and 1099’s) for the last 5 years
- Pay stubs for the last 3 months
- Bank statements
- Credit card statements
- Retirement account statements
- Pension plan statements
- Grant notice for stock options, RSUs, etc.
- Investment account statements
- Life insurance policies
- Mortgage statements
- Real estate appraisals
- Deeds to real estate
- Car registration
- Kelley Blue Book printouts (“private party value”)
- Car loan statements
- Social security benefit statement
This is only a partial list. To help even more, we’ve simplified the process for you by creating a Divorce Information Checklist you can access as part of our article: The Ultimate Divorce Checklist: The Information You Need to Prepare for Divorce.
Complete the initial paperwork.
The type of divorce you decide to file will determine what forms you need to complete in Massachusetts:
- File for a no-fault 1A divorce if you and your spouse agree that the marriage has irretrievably broken down and you have reached an agreement on all issues, including child support, parenting time, alimony, custody and dividing assets.
- File for a no-fault 1B divorce if one spouse believes the marriage has ended or if both spouses agree the marriage has ended but are not in agreement regarding divorce issues. This is called a contested no-fault divorce.
- File for a fault-based divorce if you want to prove a specific reason for the divorce such as adultery, drug or alcohol addiction or cruel treatment.
File your forms.
After you have completed your forms, you will need to file the paperwork the Probate and Family Court. If you or your spouse lives in the county where you lived together, you file for divorce at the Probate and Family Court in that county. Otherwise, you can file in the county where you or your spouse live now.
Completing proof of service in Massachusetts
You must serve your spouse with a copy of the initial paperwork within 90 days after you file your complaint.
You cannot serve the papers yourself. In Massachusetts, a sheriff or constable can complete service on your behalf. You must give them a copy of the complaint, the summons, a Track Assignment Notice, and if needed, an approved Affidavit of Indigency, a copy of the Affidavit Disclosing Care or Custody Proceedings, and an Automatic Restraining Order.
The sheriff or constable will deliver the documents in person to the defendant and return a completed Proof of Service either to you or directly back to the court.
If the sheriff or constable cannot find the defendant after diligent attempts, you will need to file a motion with the court by filing a Motion for Alternative Service form and asking that service be completed by publication or by mailing. If approved, you will be able to complete service by certified mail or by publishing a notice following court ordered guidelines in a local newspaper.
Can you file for divorce online in Massachusetts?
While it’s possible to automate the divorce process online in Massachusetts to some degree, the truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as an online divorce in the state. The Massachusetts Probate and Family Courts do not accept divorce paperwork and fees or grant divorces online.
It is possible to do some of the initial paperwork online by retaining the services of a private family law attorney or using one of several firms who specialize in assisting in the preparation of divorce forms in the state. But the Massachusetts Probate and Family Courts offer this service online for free.
However, once paperwork is completed, regardless of how it is completed, you must still file the documentation in person at the appropriate courthouse.
Filing for divorce in Massachusetts without using a lawyer
It is possible to get a divorce in Massachusetts without using a lawyer.
You must decide if you are going to file an uncontested or a contested divorce as your first step. If you don’t want to use a lawyer, it’s in your best interests to file an uncontested divorce where you both agree on all terms. This will make it easier to draft a separation agreement that can then be reviewed by the court to make sure it is fair and reasonable.
If you are finding it difficult to reach an agreement, you can use a mediator instead of getting lawyers involved. The mediator will take a collaborative approach and attempt to final terms that work best for both sides. Over the course of one or more sessions, a mediator will review financial documents, forms and worksheets as part of a discovery process and then guide you and your spouse through a series of discussions about the outstanding issues, attempting to peacefully resolve things such as child support and custody, alimony and a division of assets.
How much will it cost?
When you file for divorce in Massachusetts, you must pay a $200 divorce filing fee, a $15 divorce filing surcharge and a $5 divorce summons charge. You can request that these fees be waived if you are too poor to afford to pay them.
If there are any unresolved issues regarding your divorce, you can expect to pay an attorney legal fees that will range from $200 to $500 per hour depending on how complex your divorce is and how many hours it will take to resolve those issues. You will also need to pay some sort of a retainer up front to start the process.
Fully contested divorces can run into the tens of thousands of dollars depending on how contentious the divorce is, what kind of assets are involved, and how much disagreement there is with child custody and support issues.
How long does it take to get a divorce in Massachusetts?
When a couple first agrees to an uncontested divorce and creates a written Separation Agreement that is then filed with the Probate and Family Court as joint petitioners, the process takes about three months. In more complicated marriages where issues need to be worked out, the time frame can take considerably longer.
Parents who have minor children are required to take a court-approved parent education program and must also allow themselves time to complete this pre-hearing requirement. A certificate of program completion must be filed with the Court as part of the divorce filing.
After a Separation Agreement, financial statements and a Joint Petition for divorce have been filed, a hearing date will be scheduled. It may take a couple of weeks between the filing date and the hearing date, and usually depends on the Court’s backlog of cases. If the Separation Agreement is approved, a Judgment of Divorce Nisi (temporary judgment of divorce) will be entered 30 days later. That Judgment will then become absolute (final) within 90 more days.
This means that the entire process, including the negotiations to create a Separation Agreement generally take about 7 to 8 months in an uncontested divorce.
In a contested divorce where only one party files a Complaint for Divorce, the parties must wait six months from the filing date to have a divorce hearing where a Judgment of Divorce Nisi may be issued. The Judgment will then become final within 90 days after that. If both sides reach a settlement during the six month waiting period, the divorce can be switched to uncontested so that the hearing process can be set without going through the entire six-month period.
In Massachusetts, the Probate and Family Court official time-standard for contested divorces is 14 months This means that the divorce process, from filing to entry of a judgment, should take no more than 14 months. But depending on the court backlog and the parties’ particular needs, the process may take longer.
Working with a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst
Every divorce has financial issues that need to be addressed. In some cases, a family law attorney can provide all the information you need.
But if you have a degree of financial complexity, you should consider working with a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA).
A CDFA can help you understand the long-term impact of your decisions so you can weigh the pros and cons. In fact, working with a CDFA can actually lower the cost of your divorce (by giving you more clarity to make decisions which cuts down on the back-and-forth negotiations).
Is bifurcation of marital status allowed in Massachusetts?
Bifurcation means that both parties in a divorce can legally divide their divorce into two stages. The first part satisfies the grounds for the divorce. The marriage is terminated at that point. It also means that the financial aspects of the divorce such as child custody, visitation, child support, alimony or other contentious issues that may have stalled or that have become major sticking points will be finalized at a later date.
Unfortunately, bifurcation in Massachusetts is not allowed. All issues must be resolved and finalized before a divorce will be granted.
Can I cancel, refuse, contest, stop or reverse a divorce in Massachusetts?
When someone files for divorce in Massachusetts on the grounds of irreconcilable differences, the defendant can’t oppose the divorce. All that a spouse must do is claim that they can live with you or that they don’t love you for a divorce to proceed.
If you are served with papers but refuse to sign a separation agreement, then the divorce is considered a contested divorce and your case will be resolved by a judge instead of the spouses working out terms. Cooperation among spouses makes the process easier and less expensive, but the bottom line is that one spouse will not be able to stop another spouse from getting a divorce.
What is a divorce decree?
The divorce decree is also a summary of the rights and responsibilities of each party, including financial responsibilities and a division of assets. it also covers child custody, visitation, alimony, child support and other similar issues.
In Massachusetts a divorce nisi is the time between when a judge grants a divorce and when the divorce becomes final. It gives both parties a chance to change their minds and to verify that all assets in a marriage have been properly and truthfully accounted. No actions need to be taken during this time. When the waiting period ends, your divorce will be final automatically.
An uncontested no-fault divorce is not final until 120 days from the date of the judgment.
A contested no-fault divorce is not final until 90 days from the date of the hearing if a judgment is entered.
After your divorce is final, you will not receive an actual decree from the court, but you can request a certified copy of your divorce decree from the court that granted your divorce. The final decree is known as a Decree Absolute and a certified copy can be purchased for $20 plus $1 per page for every page except the first one.
A decree is a legally binding document, and if either party does not meet the requirements and obligations set forth in the decree, the other party can take legal action to correct any deficiencies.
What is a divorce certificate?
A divorce certificate has much less information than a decree. It usually only names both spouses and the date and place of a divorce, but nothing else. A divorce certificate provides proof that a couple is no longer married and can be used as proof to make a name change on certain documents such as a driver’s license. It may also be used to provide proof that a person is single in case they want to get married again.
To get a certificate of Divorce Absolute, you will need to complete a brief form and pay a $20 fee. You can then either mail the form and payment to the courthouse where you’re requesting a copy from or you can visit the courthouse and request a copy in person.
Changing Your Name
As you prepare your divorce forms, you will be able to choose to either restore your former name or request a court order for changing names.
The name change will be granted as part of your divorce. You may either receive a separate court order making your name change official, or else have your name change recorded on the final divorce decree. Either of these documents are accepted with all US agencies and organizations as evidence of your name change.
Your name change will not take effect just because you have a court order. You need to contact all your organizations to request your records are updated.
It’s a long process to contact each company and figure out what to send where. To lighten the load, we recommend using an Easy Name Change kit to prevent the 10+ hours of paperwork and research that you would have to do by yourself.
Recommended Divorce Resources
There are a lot of divorce resources that make big claims. We’ve tried out a whole lot of them. Most fall short. A few stand above the rest.
These are the tools and resources we’re excited to share with you because we know they can help you have a better divorce.
If you’re on the lookout for recommendations in any of the following categories, look no further:
- Online divorce
- QDRO preparation to divide retirement plans and pensions
- Masterclass on ninja tricks to negotiating with a narcissist
- Co-parenting apps
- Personal finance and budgeting apps
- Best place to sell your engagement ring
- Online dating
- And a whole lot more