In the recent unpublished Memorandum and Order Pursuant to Rule 1:28, Manning v. Manning, the Massachusetts Appeals Court overturned a custody judgment from the Probate and Family Court awarding a couple shared legal and physical custody of their two children due to the lower court judge's failure to make required findings of fact regarding the wife's allegations of domestic abuse by the husband. At the time of their divorce trial, the wife testified that her husband had abused her on numerous occasions during the marriage, including punching her, throwing objects at her, and grabbing her by the neck in front of their child. The trial judge credited the wife's testimony, writing in the judgment that the husband "physically battered and assaulted the [w]ife throughout the entire tenure of the marriage." Despite this finding, however, the judge ordered that the parties should have shared custody of their children, with each parent exercising parenting time for one week at a time.
Massachusetts courts recognize two distinct types of custody of children. The first, physical custody, is what most litigants mean when they refer to having "joint custody" or "primary custody" of their child. Physical custody is a term that describes the amount of time the child spends in the care of each parent. Although physical custody is often the aspect of divorce or custody litigation that is most contentious, the second type of custody - legal custody - is also a fundamental element of parental authority. Legal custody refers to the parents' rights to make "major decisions regarding the child's welfare including matters of education, medical care and emotional, moral and religious development." M. G. L. c. 208, § 31. Legal custody can be either joint, in which the parties must confer with each other and reach shared decisions on these types of matters, or sole, in which one parent has the ability to make decisions about the child's health, education, or religion, even if the other parent disagrees. Joint legal custody, at a minimum, requires "two capable parents with some degree of respect for one another's abilities as parents, together with a willingness and ability to work together to reach results on major decisions in a manner similar to the way married couples make decisions." Rolde v. Rolde