We don't need to tell you that getting divorced can be a major headache. Along with the emotional stresses, you might be worrying about navigating the legal system for divorce in Massachusetts. But in many cases, filing for divorce doesn't have to be that difficult—and you can get help. Here's what you need to know to get started.
When you file for divorce, you need to state a legal reason, or "ground" for ending your marriage. The grounds for divorce in Massachusetts include reasons based on fault—a claim that your spouse has committed some form on wrongdoing, such as adultery or abuse—and one "no-fault" ground: "irretrievable breakdown of the marriage." That basically means you and your spouse no longer get along and have no reasonable hope of reconciliation. Most divorcing couples choose this no-fault ground, because it avoids the recriminations and lengthy court battles involved in proving the misconduct—not to mention the attorney's fees that will almost certainly be necessary.
Even though there's only one no-fault divorce ground in Massachusetts, the state has two different types of no-fault divorce, commonly known as "1A" and "1B" divorces (named after the relevant sections of state law). Each type has its own forms and procedures, so you should know which type of divorce you'll seek before you begin the filing process.
(Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 208, §§ 1A, 1B (2022).)
Getting a 1A divorce is almost always easier, faster, and cheaper than a 1B divorce. Most couples find they can get through the uncontested divorce process in Massachusetts without hiring a lawyer. If you want those advantages but are having trouble agreeing with your spouse about all the issues, divorce mediation might help you get through the sticking points. And if you have an agreement but don't have the time or other resources to track down and fill out all the divorce forms, you can use an online divorce service that will basically walk you through the process and provide you with the completed paperwork.
Even when you start out with a 1B divorce, you may switch to a 1A divorce if you're able to reach a separation agreement with your spouse later in the process—with the help of mediation, your lawyers, or both.
Before you may file for divorce in Massachusetts, you must meet the state's residency requirements. Those requirements (which were put into law before the state allowed no-fault divorce) are based on where the cause of the divorce happened. If it happened in Massachusetts, you only need to live in the state—with the intention of staying there—when you file your divorce papers. Otherwise, you must live in the state for a full year before you may start a Massachusetts divorce. (Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 208, § 5 (2022).)
How do these residency requirements apply when you're filing for a no-fault divorce? How do you pinpoint when your marriage was irretrievably broken? The law doesn't require some objective, outside proof. Basically, it's a subjective question: When did you realize that your marriage was finished, with no hope of reconciliation? That could have been when your attempts to get back together failed, when one of you moved out with no intention of returning, or simply when the two of you finally agreed to get divorced. (Caffyn v. Caffyn, 806 N.E.2d 415 (Mass. 2004).)
But beware: The law makes it clear that you won't be allowed to file for divorce in the state if it appears you moved there for the purpose of getting a Massachusetts divorce.
As with any legal proceeding, filing for divorce involves a lot of paperwork. You can find and download the official Massachusetts forms for divorce online, along with instructions. Many of the forms are the same for 1A and 1B divorces, but there are a few differences.
Massachusetts has official forms that are specific for a 1A uncontested divorce:
You and your spouse must complete and sign these forms as the petitioners.
When filing for a 1A divorce, you must also include a copy of your signed, notarized separation agreement. Massachusetts doesn't have an official form for this document, but many online divorce services will provide you with a completed agreement based on the information you've supplied.
For a no-fault contested 1B divorce, the spouse who's starting the process (known as the "plaintiff") will complete and sign a Complaint for Divorce (CJD 101B).
You may need to file additional forms, either with the complaint or later, if you want to ask for temporary court orders while your divorce case is proceeding—for instance, if you're requesting temporary alimony or child support.
Anyone filing for divorce must also include a statistical form, the Record of Absolute Divorce (R-408). You'll also need to attach a certified copy of your marriage certificate.
If you have children, you will also need to fill out and submit the following forms:
Finally, each spouse will have to provide a complete and accurate financial statement. In an uncontested 1A divorce, these statements should be included with the other initial divorce paperwork. In a contested 1B divorce, both spouses must file these statements with the court, and give copies to the other spouse, within 45 days after the divorce summons was served (more on that below). (Mass. Prob. and Fam. Ct. Supp., Rule 401 (2022).)
Once you've completed all of the forms, make sure that you have at least two copies (one for each spouse), along with the originals. You'll need to file the paperwork with the court in the county where you and your spouse lived as a couple—as long as one of you still lives there—or, if both of you have moved from that county, in the county where either of you lives now. (Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 208, § 6 (2022).)
You may file the divorce papers either in person or by mail. Contact the Probate and Family Court in the county where you'll be filing for the location or specific information on filing by mail.
The court will charge a fee for filing your divorce complaint or petition. In Massachusetts, the filing fee for divorce is currently $215 with a surcharge (as of 2022). If you can't afford to pay, you can ask the court to waive the fees. You'll need to submit an Affidavit of Indigency with your divorce petition or complaint. The court will review your application and let you know if you have to pay the fees.
When you've filed for a contested 1B divorce in Massachusetts, you must serve your spouse with the divorce paperwork, along with a summons. Usually, you'll complete this service by having the sheriff hand-deliver the documents. There are separate rules if your spouse is out of state or can't be found, so ask the court clerk how to proceed in those situations. If your spouse is willing to accept the paperwork directly from you, have your spouse sign the "Acceptance of Service" portion of the summons (in the presence of a notary). You must then file the "Return of Service" (part of the summons) with the court.
In an uncontested 1A divorce, there's no need for official service on your spouse, since you both signed the petition.
After you've filed for divorce, the next steps will depend on whether it's contested or uncontested, as well as whether you have minor children.
After you've filed for a 1B divorce and served the paperwork, your spouse will have 20 days to file an Answer to Complaint for Divorce (CJD 201). The case will then go through the next steps for contested divorces, including the legal process for gathering evidence known as "discovery" and ultimately a divorce trial—unless you manage to settle your disputes along the way (usually through your lawyers). Massachusetts has a six-month waiting period before you can schedule a hearing on a 1B divorce, but many contested divorces take much longer than that before the cases are ready for trial.
There's no waiting period before the final hearing in an uncontested 1A divorce in Massachusetts. Once you've filed all of the documents and met the requirements, your hearing can take place as soon as the court's schedule allows it. Both you and your spouse will appear in court and answer some questions. The judge will review your separation agreement and other paperwork to make sure that you've met the state's requirements, that your agreement is reasonably fair, and that any provisions concerning your children are in their best interests. Once the judge approves your agreement, you will have to wait 120 days until your divorce is final—30 days before the "judgment of divorse nisi" is entered and then 90 more days before that provisional judgment becomes absolute. (Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 208, §§ 1A, 21 (2021).)
Massachusetts courts require that divorcing couples with minor children participate in a parent education program, unless they qualify for a waiver. Among other circumstances, waivers may be appropriate when chronic and severe violence makes safe communication impossible. (Mass. Prob. and Fam. Ct. Standing Order 2-16 (2021).)
Under special rules during the Covid pandemic, parents may complete online programs or attend education sessions by videoconference.