How to file a Complaint for Divorce

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

if you and your spouse both want a divorce in Massachusetts, and you agree about all the issues, you can file a Joint Petition for Divorce.

But sometimes only one person wants the divorce. Or you and your spouse do not agree about the issues in the divorce. These issues can include things like custody, parenting time, child support and alimony. In those situations, you need to file a Complaint for Divorce.

This article covers complaints for divorce. See How to file a no-fault 1A Joint Petition for Divorce for information about filing for divorce together.

You do not need a lawyer to file for divorce. But cases like divorce can be complicated. Having a lawyer to help you can be very important, especially if your spouse is violent, abusive, or controlling. Try to talk to a lawyer before filing for divorce.

Learn more about divorce and separation in Massachusetts.

What's the difference between a "no-fault" and a "fault" Complaint for Divorce?

When you file for divorce, you need to choose a "grounds" (legal reason) for your divorce. 

"No-fault" divorce (1B Complaint for Divorce)

One grounds for getting divorced is that you do not get along with your spouse anymore and you do not want to be married. This is called "Irretrievable Breakdown of the Marriage." Simply put: the marriage is broken down and cannot be fixed. 

"Fault" divorce (Complaint for Divorce)

There are 7 "fault" grounds for divorce. In a "fault" divorce, one spouse files for the divorce and blames the other spouse for the end of the marriage.

When can I file a Complaint for a No-fault 1B Divorce?

You can file a Complaint for a No-fault 1B Divorce when:

  • your marriage has broken down and it cannot be fixed, and
  • you and your spouse do not agree on all the decisions you have to make in your divorce.

You can file for a no-fault 1B divorce even if your spouse does not want a divorce.

Is it important to file my No-fault 1B Complaint before my spouse files?

No. The person who files first does not have any legal advantage over their spouse.

The person who files the complaint is the “plaintiff” and their spouse is the “defendant.”

When can I file a Complaint for a Fault Divorce?

You can file a Complaint for a Fault Divorce when you think that your spouse is at fault for the end of your marriage. You must prove with evidence (which can include your statements), one of the following 7 reasons:

  1. Cruel and Abusive Treatment: The most common fault grounds for divorce. You need to show that your spouse subjected you to cruel and abusive physical or emotional treatment, knowing that it caused you harm. Some judges will accept a statement that your spouse yelled and screamed at you, knowing that this made you very upset. Other judges may want to know more about how you were upset (for example, unable to sleep, headaches). It is rare for judges to deny a divorce for cruel and abusive treatment.
  2.  Desertion: You will have to show that your spouse:
    1. left you,
    2. has been gone at least a year, and
    3. is not planning to return.
    4. You will also have to show that they left on their own, you didn't agree, and they did not have a good reason to leave.
    5. In some cases, there is desertion, even though the spouse never physically left the home. In those cases, the judge has to look at the facts of the case to see if it amounts to desertion.
  3. Gross and confirmed habits of intoxication: You have to prove that your spouse
    1.  uses "excessive" amounts of (too much) drugs or alcohol, 
    2.  they do it on their own without being forced, and
    3. they do this regularly, rather than just every once in a while.
  4. Gross or wanton and cruel refusal or neglect to provide suitable support: Your spouse refuses to give you enough money to live on. To use this ground, you have to show that your spouse is able to support you, but refuses or fails to do so. You also have to show that this has hurt you physically (you have gotten sick) or put you in danger of physical harm.
  5. Adultery: You must prove that your spouse had sex with someone else. This is difficult to prove. You have to name the person. Most people do not use this ground, even if they think their spouse had sex with someone else.
  6. Impotency: This means your spouse is unable to have sex. This is rarely used.
  7. Sentence of Confinement in a Penal Institution: This means your spouse has been sentenced to spend 5 or more years in prison. This grounds is based on how long the sentence is, not how much time they actually spend in prison.
Which Probate and Family Court do I file in?

You can file for divorce in Massachusetts if:

  • you have lived in the Massachusetts for a year, or
  • you lived together as a married couple in Massachusetts and what happened to cause the divorce (the "grounds" for divorce) happened in Massachusetts.

If either of these two things is true, then you can file for divorce in Massachusetts, even if your spouse lives in another state, or you do not know where they live.

You file your complaint for divorce in Probate and Family Court. Every county has a Probate and Family Court.

If you or your spouse still lives in the county where you last lived together, file in that county.

If neither of you still lives in the county where you last lived together, file:

  • in the county where you live now, or
  • in the county where your spouse lives now.
How much does it cost to file a Complaint for Divorce?

The Probate and Family Court charges fees for filing and handling certain documents.

As of January 2024, it costs 

  • $215 to file a complaint for divorce.
  • $5 charge for a summons

Also, deputy sheriffs and constables usually charge $35-$65 to serve the papers on your spouse.

 Check out the Probate and Family Court fee page for the latest information on filing fees. 

If you cannot afford the costs of filing for divorce, see Affidavit of indigency if you can't afford Massachusetts court costs.

How do I file a Complaint for Divorce?

In Probate and Family Court, file your: 

There may be other forms for you to fill out as well. 

What happens after I file a Complaint for Divorce?

Once you file, you must serve the summons and other papers to let your spouse know that you have filed for divorce. You need to wait six months after filing the papers before you can ask for a trial date. But you can file motions for temporary orders with your complaint and have them heard within 10 days.

If you have minor children, you may need to attend an online co-parenting education course.

You can get the divorce even if your spouse does not show up for the hearing. If you do not have an agreement, the judge will decide things like support, custody, parenting time and visitation, and what happens to your property.

What happens if we reach an agreement after filing a Complaint for Divorce?

Sometimes, you and your spouse are able to reach an agreement on custody, parenting time, child support, alimony, dividing property and other issues after the complaint is filed. If so, you can write a separation agreement. Let the clerk's office or the Probate Court virtual registry know that you have an agreement. The clerk can schedule a hearing for the judge to approve the agreement. This may be faster than waiting for a trial.

When is my divorce final?

After the divorce hearing, the judge issues a Judgment of Divorce Nisi. The court will mail the Judgment of Divorce Nisi to you. This means your divorce will be final in 90 days. You will not get any future order or papers from the court after you get the Judgment of Divorce Nisi.

You are still married. You cannot marry anyone else until the end of the 90 days. 

What if I do not want my spouse to know where I live?

If you need to keep your address from your spouse so you can be safe, ask the court to “impound” your address. Tell the court why you need to keep your spouse from learning your address so you can be safe. See Protecting your information in Probate and Family Court.

Can I make my spouse pay for my lawyer?

You can ask the court to order your spouse to help pay your lawyer’s fees. You need to show the judge that:

  • You do not have enough money to pay your lawyer's fees, and
  • Your spouse does have enough money to pay your lawyer’s fees.

See Requesting an order for your spouse to pay your lawyer's fees.

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