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If someone serves you with a paternity case

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed March 2017

Help! I just got served with a paternity case! What do I do?

Relax. You have time to “answer” if you just got served. Try to talk to a lawyer and show her the Complaint. Call your local legal services organization to see if you can get free legal help. If you cannot get free legal help, try to find a private lawyer who will represent you at a price you can afford. 

If I can't get a lawyer, what do I do first?

Read the papers

Read the papers that the sheriff or constable gave you when he or she served you. The papers should include a summons and a Complaint to Establish Paternity. If you and the father already signed a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Parentage, the complaint will probably be a “Complaint for Custody-Support-Parenting Time.” There might also be a motion for “temporary custody order” or "parenting time" or “visitation rights.

The summons tells you how much time you have to file an “answer” to the Complaint.

The "Complaint"tells you who filed the case, why he thinks he is your child's father, and what he wants.

1. At the bottom of the Complaint, you can find out if the person wants custody or just parenting time or visitation.

2. At the bottom right of the Complaint, you can see who signed it. If the person who filed the complaint is the only person who signed it, this means he does not have a lawyer (yet).

If there is a motion, the motion form and proposed order will tell you what the person is asking from the court and the date and time of the hearing on the motion.

Write an "Answer" to the Complaint:

1. Look at the Complaint.

2. Each sentence is numbered.

3. On a separate piece of paper, write down whether you “admit" (agree) or “deny" (disagree) with each numbered part of the Complaint.

4. See a sample Answer where you agree that the person who filed the complaint is the father of your child and you agree that he can have parenting time.

File the Answer at the Probate and Family Court that is on the Summons.

1. You can take the Answer to the clerk's office at the court or your can mail it to the court.

2. You have to file the Answer within 20 days after the sheriff or constable served you with the Complaint.

3. It does not cost anything to file an Answer.

4. If you go to the court to file the Answer, ask for the "Docket Number" of the case so that you can write it on the Answer and any other documents you file.

5. You can file motions with your Answer but be sure to mail your motions at least ten days before you asked for them to be heard. For example, you can file a Motion for Paternity Tests if you do not think the man who filed the Complaint is the father. See sample motions in the Appendices to other Chapters. It does not cost anything to file a motion.

Mail a copy of your Answer and any motions to the person who filed the Complaint.

The person's address is on the Summons. If the person who filed the Complaint has a lawyer, mail your Answer and motions to the lawyer.

Is the Department of Revenue (DOR) involved? If yes, send a copy of your Answer and any motions to DOR, too.

Fill out a Financial Statement form.

Read How to fill out a Financial Statement . You will have to bring your completed Financial Statement to court on the day of the hearing. The person who filed the case may send you a letter demanding that you send him a copy of your Financial Statement. If he sends you a "demand letter," then you will need to send him a copy of your Financial Statement.

Go to court for motion hearings.

If either of you filed Motions, you need to go to court on the day they are scheduled to be heard.

Next steps – getting a court date when a motion has not been scheduled

If you filed the case, return the Summons to the court. The deputy sheriff who served the Summons will return it to you with his signed certificate on it saying that he has served the Summons.

If the other parent filed the case, file your answer at the court.

If neither of you has filed a motion, that means that no court date has been scheduled. When you return a Summons to the court or file an answer, the court clerk looks to see if any court date has been scheduled. If no court date has been scheduled, the clerk will schedule a “Case Management Conference” and send you notice of it.

At the Case Management Conference the judge will see what needs to be done to get the case ready for a final decision and what progress has been made for settling the case. The judge can decide the case at the Case Management Conference if there is an agreement or if no answer has been filed.

If there is no agreement and an answer has been filed, another day in court will be needed. The judge will schedule the next court date at the Case Management Conference. The next court date would likely be for a “pre-trial conference.”

What do I do on the day of the hearing?

Go to court and check in

1. Go to court.

2. Check in at the desk in the clerk's office.

3. Find your courtroom.

4. Check in with the clerk in that courtroom.

5. The clerk may tell you to go to the Probation Department.

At the Probation Department

The Probation Officer will try to help you work out an agreement with the person who filed the case.

1. Check in with the Probation Department clerk.

2. If you do not feel safe sitting in the same room with the person who filed the case, ask the Probation Officer to meet with you separately. Tell the Probation Officer if you are afraid of the person who filed the case. Tell the Probation Officer if you have an Abuse Prevention Order or if that person abused you in the past.

3. Do not agree to anything unless you understand what it means.

4. Do not sign anything unless you understand it and you really agree with it.

5. Get a copy of anything you sign, especially if it is an agreement.

Going in front of the judge

If you are able to work out an agreement at the Probation Department, you will need to ask the judge to approve it.

If you cannot work out an agreement, you will need to ask the judge to make a decision.

1. Tell the judge what you think is fair and why.

2. Speak only to the judge when you are in the courtroom. When you are in the courtroom, do not talk to the person who filed the case.

3. Do not interrupt.

4. Listen to the judge's questions, and try to answer them carefully and directly.

Get a copy of any court orders or agreements.

Read Probate and Family Court.

Who to call for help

Find Legal Aid

You may be able to get free legal help from your local legal aid program. Or email a question about your own legal problem to a lawyer.

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