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:
- motion hearings, where the judge orders paternity tests or makes decisions that cannot wait, like custody or child support;
- Case Management Conferences;
- Pre-Trial Conferences; and
- 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 father named in the case is your child’s legal father – the court “establishes paternity”; or
- the father named in the case is not the child’s legal father – 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.
What happens at a Case Management Conference?
At a Case Management Conference the judge speaks to you and the other party about the case.
The judge can hear the case and grant a final judgment that establishes paternity right away if:
- the defendant did not file an Answer. or
- you and the other party both agree in writing about everything that needs to be decided, like who the real father is, custody, and child support. This is “settling.” If you settle you do not have to go to any other court dates.
If the court does not make a final judgment at the Case Management Conference, the court will set the next court date. The next court date could be a Pre-Trial Conference, or a trial date.
You can ask for a Case Management Conference or a Pre-Trial Conference after you serve the complaint. When you ask for a Case Management Conference you have to notify the other party.
How is a Case Management Conference scheduled?
The court schedules a Case Management Conference when
- a return of service or an answer is filed, and
- no court hearing is scheduled
What happens at a Pre-Trial Conference?
Before the Pre-Trial Conference
If the court schedules a Pre-Trial Conference, they will send you a letter called a “Pre-Trial Notice and Order“ or a “Pre-Trial Notice and Memorandum”.
The Pre-trial Notice and Order tells you the date of the pre-trial conference and the things that you need to do before the conference. Read the Pre-trial Notice and Order very carefully. You must do everything that it tells you because it is a court order.
The letter will say that before the date of the Pre-Trial Conference, you must:
- write a "Pre-Trial Memorandum;"
- file it with the court; and
- send it to the other party.
In your Pre-Trial Memorandum
- list the things you think you and the other party agree on, like a parenting time schedule;
- list all the things you and the other party do not agree on and want the court to decide like who the real father is, who should have custody, and how much child support to order;
- list all the people you might ask to be witnesses; and
- attach a copy of your current Financial Statement.
At the conference
Not all judges organize pre-trial conferences the same way. You can ask the court clerk, a lawyer , or “Lawyer for the Day” about what to expect.
Usually, you and the other party see a judge or someone on the court staff. You try to figure out what issues the court needs to decide at the trial.
If you work out an agreement, the court can make a final judgment at the Pre-Trial Conference. This is “settling” the case.”
If you do not settle at the Pre-Trial Conference, the court will make an “Order After Pre-Trial Conference”. The Order tells you what happens next.
In some courts, if you and the person you are taking to court are the only witnesses, you may be able to have the trial on the same day as the pre-trial conference.
What happens at a trial?
A paternity case can be very complicated. You should have a lawyer. If you cannot get a lawyer, talk to a lawyer.
At a trial, the lawyers ask the parties and witnesses questions. The judge can also ask questions. He or she listens to the answers and makes a judgment about who the father is.
The parties and witnesses must swear to tell the truth before they can answer the questions. Answering questions after swearing to tell the truth is “testifying.”
You and the other party testify
- Both you and the other party have a right to testify.
- Both of you can bring other people to court as witnesses to answer questions.
- You can use a subpoena to make other people come to court as witnesses.
- If either of you refuses to answer, the judge can order you to answer.
- If the judge orders you to answer and you refuse because your answer may show you have committed a crime, you have the right not to answer. But the judge can take your refusal as evidence against you.
A man who was married to the mother when the child was probably conceived can testify
- He can testify he is not the father, because he did not have sex with the mother when her child was conceived.
- He can testify that the “father” in the case is the child’s father
- He can testify that the father in the case is not the child’s father
- He can testify that his wife or ex-wife is not the child’s mother.
Witnesses testify if they have evidence about who the father is
- You can bring other people to court as witnesses to answer questions.
- You can use a subpoena to make other people come to court as witnesses with.
- If a witness refuses to answer a question, the judge can order him or her to answer.
- If the judge orders a witness to answer and they refuse because the answer may show they have committed a crime, they have the right not to answer. But refusing can affect the judge’s decision.
The judge looks at paternity test results
The judge can only look at paternity test results if there is enough evidence to show that the mother and the “father” had sex when her child was probably conceived.
If you think the test results are wrong, you must file a written objection. In the objection you say you “object” to the judge’s looking at the test results. You must file the objection:
- when you get notice of the trial if the trial is less than 30 days away, or
- within 30 days of the day you get notice of the trial.
If you file an objection to the test results, the judge can still use the test results to decide paternity. But a witness must testify that the report is accurate and the tests were done correctly.
For the law about paternity tests, see Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 209C, section 17.
The judge looks at other evidence of who the father is
The judge can look at the mother, the child, and the “father” to see if they look like each other.
Only the mother is allowed to testify about some facts
Witnesses and the other party cannot testify that the mother has sex with men all the time.
- Only the mother can testify that she had sex with an unidentified man at any time.
- Only the mother can testify that she had sex with an identified man outside the time when her child was conceived.
For the law about paternity trials, see Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 209C, section 16.
What if the defendant does not show up in court or follow the rules?
If the defendant does not file an Answer, he or she has “defaulted.”
If the defendant does not show up at court, it is also a “default.”
The court must make a judgment that establishes paternity if the defendant defaults, and:
- the defendant was served correctly and
- the mother or the “father” swears they had sex when the child was probably conceived.
For more information about what happens if the other party does not show up in court see Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 209C, section 8.