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What happens when I get to Probate and Family Court for a hearing?

Produced by Attorney Jeff Wolf for MassLegalHelp
Created May 2018

When you get to court for your hearing, ask a court officer or clerk where you should go. Sometimes they tell you which courtroom to go to and sometimes they tell you to check in at the Probation Office.

What happens at the Probation Office?

The parents meet together with a probation officer to talk about their case and see what issues you can agree on before you see the judge. These are issues in your case, like temporary custody, parenting time details, and child support.

The probation officer will:

  • Gather information from both of you.
  • Try to help you make an agreement.
  • Write up the agreement. Sometimes this is called a “stipulation”.
  • Report to the judge what they learned about your case.
  • Make a recommendation to the judge, if the judge asks for one.

If there are things you and the other parent can agree on, the probation officer will write it up for you and the other parent to sign. The agreement is sometimes called a “stipulation”. After you sign an agreement, the judge will look at it and make it into a court order.

The probation officer is not a judge. They do not decide you case or make an order. They are not like probation officers in the criminal court. They do not follow up to make sure that court orders like a temporary custody order or a child support order is obeyed.

What you or the other parent say to the probation officer is not confidential. The probation officer can tell the judge what either of you said.

What if I do not feel safe meeting with the probation officer and the other parent together?

Be prepared to tell the probation officer:

  • If you have a restraining order,
  • If you do not feel safe or will be intimidated by the other parent if you have to meet with the probation officer and the other parent together; and
  • That you want to be interviewed apart from the other parent, and
  • Why it is important for you not to be forced to be close to the other parent when you are telling the probation officer about the facts of your case or when you are trying to make an agreement, and
  • That you need to be as safe and feel as safe in a meeting with a probation officer as you would if you were in the courtroom.

What if I do not understand enough English to talk with a probation officer about my case and make an agreement?

Be prepared to tell the probation officer if you need an interpreter. It can be very risky and dangerous to meet with a probation officer without an interpreter if you think you need one. It is very important that you understand what the probation officer, the other parent, and their lawyer say, and that they understand what you say.

What happens if we sign an agreement?

If you and the other parent sign an agreement, it means you are asking the judge to make your agreement into a court order.

Sometimes, you will go into the courtroom and the judge will:

  • talk to both parents about the agreement, and
  • ask each of you if you understand the agreement and signed it voluntarily.

Other times, the judge will make the agreement into an order without talking to you.

The judge will only make the agreement into an order if they believe that you understand the agreement and signed it voluntarily.

Sometimes the order will be temporary, like a temporary custody order, and it will be in effect until the next hearing.

Other times, your agreement will be for a final judgment, and the case will be over.

Do not sign an agreement unless you actually agree

Only sign an agreement if you understand what it means and you are signing voluntarily.

What happens if we do not sign an agreement?

If you do not sign an agreement, the probation officer will write a short report about what each parent is asking for. You will get to read the report. Then the probation officer will give the report to the judge. You and the other parent will see the judge, and the judge will decide what to do next.

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