How to bring a Complaint to Establish Paternity case in court

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

You start a paternity action in court by first filling out court forms. 

This "how to" explains the steps if you are ready to start a case.

Not ready to start a case yet? Learn more about paternity tests and when you might want to file a paternity case in court.

What court papers do I need?

Tell the clerk that you want to file a Complaint to Establish Paternity. The clerk will give you the forms you need. The forms are free. If you need a court order right away, tell the clerk that you also want to file a Motion for Temporary Orders. People usually ask for temporary orders for things that can’t wait, like custody and child support. Learn about Motions for Temporary Orders.

Ask the clerk for the following forms to fill out:

Bring a copy of the child's birth certificate to court when you file.

You can get blank copies of these forms for free in the clerk's office of any Probate and Family Court in Massachusetts. You can also get blank forms on the Probate and Family Court’s website.

You may also need to file

  • Motion for Genetic Marker Testing.  


If you are filing your case without a lawyer, you can ask the You can ask the Court Service Center or a Lawyer for the Day at a Probate Court for help filling out the papers.

  1. Fill out the forms and give them to the clerk. The clerk will stamp each form with the date. You have "filed your case."
  2. Ask for 2 copies of everything. One copy is for you. The other copy is to "serve." The clerk may say that you need to pay for the copies or make the copies yourself. There will be a way to do this at the courthouse.
What are the fees and costs?

When you file a Complaint for Paternity, you pay a:

  • Filing fee - $115
  • Summons fee - $5
  • Genetic marker test fee, and
  • Fee to the deputy sheriff or constable to serve the court papers to the other party. The sheriff or constable's cost depends on the distance the sheriff or constable has to travel or how many times they have to return to a location to complete service.

If you cannot afford these fees and costs, you can ask the state to pay them using an Affidavit of Indigency form. 

File the Complaint to Establish Paternity and other court papers.

File in the Probate and Family Court that covers the city where the child and one of the parents lives. If neither parent lives in the same county as the child, file in the county where the child lives. But if the parents have been parties to a prior unmarried parents case and the case has not been dismissed, then the case can be filed where the earlier case was filed. Find the Probate and Family Court in the right county.

Go to the clerk's office in the Probate and Family Court or download the form from the Probate and Family Court Department forms page.

Serve the papers.

Once you file your case, you have to "serve" the court papers on the other side. If the mother was married when the child was born or conceived, and he says he is the child's father, the mother's husband must also be served.

Find your local sheriff or constable and give them:

  1. The summons,
  2. The approved Affidavit of Indigency (be sure to write on it that you need the state to pay the service fees). The Affidavit of Indigency is for the sheriff or constable. It tells the sheriff or constable to bill the state for their fees;
  3. A copy of the Complaint; and
  4. A copy of the Affidavit Disclosing Care or Custody Proceedings, if you had to file one. 

Make sure to keep copies for yourself.

Learn more about how to serve a defendant in a Probate and Family Court case.

Make a return of service.

After the sheriff or constable serves the papers, they return the original summons to you. On the summons, the sheriff or constable fills out, dates, and signs the section called "Proof of Service."

Next, return the signed original summons to the court. This is called making "return of service." Take the summons back to the court as soon as you get it from the sheriff. It is proof that the other person has the papers that tell them about the case. Be sure to make a copy of the signed original summons for your records.

Case management conference and court dates.

The person you are taking to court has to file an Answer to your complaint. The summons tells them how much time they have to answer. In a paternity case, they have 20 days from the time they gets served with the papers to file an Answer.

When you return the summons to the court, the 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. The Case Management Conference will be at least 30 days after you file "return of service," but probably longer.

At the Case Management Conference, the next court date will be assigned.

If a court date has been scheduled for a motion for temporary orders, the clerk will not schedule a Case Management Conference when you return the summons to the court.

If you file any Motions for Temporary Orders, the date you scheduled for the hearing might be before the other person files an Answer. 

Getting a final decision.

You do not get a court decision right away. There are many steps. You may have to go to court more than once. You go to court for:

  1. Motion hearings, where the judge orders paternity tests or makes decisions that cannot wait, like custody or child support;
  2. Case Management Conferences;
  3. Pre-Trial Conferences; and
  4. The final hearing, or trial.

The last step in your paternity case is when the court makes a “judgment”. A judgment is a final decision. The court can decide one of 2 things:

  • The person named in the case is your child’s legal parent – the court “establishes paternity”; or
  • The person named in the case is not the child’s legal parent – the court does not “establish paternity”.

When the court makes a judgment that establishes paternity, the judge can also order custody, parenting time, visitation, child support, health insurance, and restraining orders.

At every hearing or conference, the court will schedule the next hearing or conference for the case.


Sometimes you do not have a trial. If you and the other party can agree at hearings or conferences, the judge can approve your agreement and make it a court judgment.

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