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Know the Laws: Massachusetts

UPDATED November 28, 2016

Abuse Prevention Orders

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An abuse prevention order is a civil order that provides protection from physical or sexual harm caused by force or threat from a family or household member.

Basic information

back to topWhat is the legal definition of abuse in Massachusetts?

This section defines abuse for the purposes of getting an abuse protection order.

The Massachusetts Abuse Prevention Act defines "abuse" as the occurrence of one or more of the following acts between "family or household members":

  • Actual or attempted physical abuse;
  • Placing another in fear of serious physical harm;
  • Causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat of force or duress.*
"Family or household members" include:
  • A spouse or former spouse;
  • Someone you live with or used to live with;
  • A relative by blood or marriage;
  • The parent of your child;
  • A person you have or had a substantial dating relationship with.**
To read the exact wording of the law, please see "Chapter 209A: Section 1: Definitions" on the MA Statutes page.

* M.G.L.A 209A § 1
** M.G.L.A 209A § 1

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back to topWhat types of abuse prevention orders are there? How long do they last?

An abuse prevention order, called a "209A order," or a "protective order," is a civil court order intended to provide protection from physical or sexual harm caused by force or threat of harm from a family or household member.  There are three types of orders:

Emergency protective orders: If you are in immediate danger of abuse and the court is closed, you may get an emergency order by going to the nearest police department.  They will help you get a temporary protective order from a judge on call through the "Emergency Judicial Response System."  You will need to prove that you are in immediate danger of abuse to qualify for this order.   If you are issued this order, it will only be good until the close of the next day that the court is open.  For the protection to remain in effect, you must go to court before the close of the next business day to request an abuse prevention order.  If you are physically unable to appear in court, then someone may appear in court on your behalf and file for you.  Check with your local courthouse for instructions on who can be sent on your behalf and if there is anything you need to do in order to verify that s/he is appearing on your behalf.

Temporary (ex parte) orders: When you go to court to file for a final abuse prevention order, you can also ask for a temporary order.  This can be done without a full court hearing and without the abuser present (this is called "ex parte").  As soon as a temporary order is issued, the abuser will be notified that you have an order against him/her.  The court will give you a date (within 10 business days) for a full court hearing where you and the abuser have a chance to be present and tell your sides of the story.

Long-term orders: A final (long-term) abuse prevention order can be issued only after a court hearing where you and the abuser have a chance to each tell your sides of the story to a judge.  (It does not matter if the abuser actually shows up – it only matters that s/he was given notice of the hearing and had the chance to show up to give his/her side of the story.)  You must attend that hearing.  If you do not go to the hearing, your temporary order may expire and you will have to start the process over.  A long-term order will last for up to one year, unless otherwise stated.*  Orders may also be extended.  For more information, see How do I change or extend my abuse prevention order?

* M.G.L.A. 209A § 3(c)

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back to topHow can an abuse prevention order help me?

In an abuse prevention order, a judge may order the abuser to:

  • Stay away from you and your children;
  • Stay away from your residence, place of work, school, child's school or day care (you must specifically request these places);
  • Stop threatening or hurting you;
  • Stop contacting you;
  • Move out of the house (if you lived together) and not return;
  • Pick up his/her personal belongings with a police escort;
  • Pay temporary support for you and your child;
  • Pay for any losses you suffered as a direct result of the abuse, such as:
    • lost wages,
    • medical bills,
    • broken locks,
    • changing locks,
    • personal property;
  • Surrender any and all firearms and firearm identification cards to the police;
  • Return all house keys and family car keys to you;
  • Not spend money in a bank account, unless that money is necessary for him/her to survive;
  • Attend a batterer's intervention program (this is more likely to happen in a criminal case than in the abuse prevention order hearing);* and
  • Not abuse, threaten, take, interfere with, hide, harm or get rid of any animal owned or kept by you, the abuser or a child living in your household.**
The abuse prevention order can also:
  • Protect ("impound") your address if you moved to escape abuse so the abuser does not find out where you are;
  • Award you temporary custody of your children; (but see "Note" below)
  • Give you possession, care and control of any domesticated animal owned or kept by you, the abuser or a child living in your household; and
  • Other reasonable requests that the judge believes are necessary in order for you to be free from the violence.*
If the judge orders visitation with the abuser, the judge should make sure the well-being and safety of the child and abused parent are protected by:
  • Ordering supervised exchange of the child;
  • Ordering supervised visitation with the child;
  • Ordering the abuser to attend and complete a batterers' treatment program;
  • Ordering the abuser to refrain from drinking or using drugs during the visitation (and 24 hours before the visit);
  • Prohibiting overnight visitation;
  • Requiring a bond from the abuser to ensure the safe return of the child;
  • Ordering an investigation or appointing a guardian ad litem or attorney for the child; and/or
  • Ordering the abuser to pay temporary child or spousal support.*
Note: If there is already a custody or child support order established (or pending) from the probate / family court, the judge can still include an order for custody or support in your abuse prevention order as long as it is for a period of time that does not exceed 30 days.  The judge in the probate / family court can later change the terms of custody or support, however, and that judge will have the final say in the matter.*

* M.G.L.A. 209A § 3
** M.G.L.A. 209A § 11(a)

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back to topIn which county can I file for an abuse prevention order?

You can file for an abuse prevention order in the county where you live, or if you have left your home to avoid abuse, you have the option of filing in the county in which you are temporarily living.*

However, if you have left the home and want to keep the address where you are staying confidential, filing in that county would likely not be a good idea since it would alert the abuser to the fact that you are living in that county.

*M.G.L.A 209A § 2

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Who can get an abuse prevention order

back to topWho can get an abuse prevention order (209A order)?

You can seek legal protection from acts of abuse done to you or your minor child by:

  • A spouse or former spouse,
  • Someone you live with or used to live with,
  • A relative by blood or marriage,
  • The parent of your child, or
  • A person you have or had a substantial dating relationship with.*
If you are a minor (under 18), you may need a parent or guardian to file a 209(A) order on your behalf. Speak to a local domestic violence organization for information about how MA courts handle such cases.

Note: If the above categories do not fit your situation, you can file for "injunctive relief" and ask for a restraining order (not a 209A abuse prevention order) in superior court. This may apply to cases where the abuser is a neighbor, co-worker, or stranger. You may also be able to file a criminal complaint against that person.

* M.G.L.A. 209A § 1

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back to topCan I get an abuse prevention order against a same-sex partner?

In Massachusetts, you may apply for an abuse prevention order (209A order) against a current or former same-sex partner as long as the relationship meets the requirements listed in Who can get an abuse prevention order (209A order)?  You must also be the victim of an act of abuse, which is explained here What is the legal definition of abuse in Massachusetts?

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back to topShould I ask for child support as a part of an abuse prevention order (209A)?

If you have a child with the abuser and need child support, you have the choice of filing for child support as a part of your abuse prevention order or separately from probate court. If you feel that it is safe to do so, you should consider asking for child support as a part of your abuse prevention order.

If you file for child support from probate court, it may take many months for probate court to give you a child support order. If you receive a child support order as a part of an abuse prevention order, it will take effect immediately.

If the abuser is employed and you receive child support through a 209A, a judge should order a "wage attachment" payable to the Department of Revenue.  A wage attachment is when the amount of support the abuser owes will be automatically deducted from his/her paycheck.  However, if s/he is self-employed or works “off the books,” talk to the judge or your attorney about other methods for getting the support payments sent to you.

Judges should use the same child support guidelines in either a separate child support proceeding or an abuse prevention order hearing.  For more information on child support, you can go to our Child Support section as well as visiting the Massachusetts Court System website.

If you ask for child support as a part of an abuse prevention order and:

  • you believe the judge did not give you the amount of child support you should have received under the child support guidelines;
  • the judge ordered a wage attachment payable to the court rather than to the Department of Revenue; or
  • the judge told you to go to probate court or the Department of Revenue;

then you should contact a lawyer or domestic violence advocate for assistance. To find a resource in your area please visit our MA Where to Find Help page.

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back to topHow much does it cost to get an abuse protection order? Do I need a lawyer?

Nothing. There is no filing fee to get an abuse prevention order.*

Although you do not need a lawyer to file for a protection order, it may be to your advantage to have one. This is especially important if the abuser has a lawyer. Even if the abuser does not have a lawyer, it is recommended that you contact a lawyer to make sure that your legal rights are protected.

If you cannot afford a lawyer but want one to help you with your case, you can find information on legal assistance and domestic violence agencies on the MA Where to Find Help page. In addition, the domestic violence agencies in your area and/or court staff may be able to answer some of your questions or help you fill out the necessary court forms. You will find contact information for courthouses on the MA Courthouse Locations page.

* M.G.L.A. 209A § 3

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What are the steps for obtaining an abuse prevention order?

back to topStep 1: Go to court to get and file the petition.

As soon as possible after the abuse occurs, go to the district court nearest to where you live or the probate and family court in the county in which you live. You can obtain a petition during normal business hours, Monday through Friday. To find the courthouse in your county, go to MA Courthouse Locations.

At the courthouse, tell the clerk that you want to file a petition for a final abuse prevention order. If you are in immediate danger, tell the clerk you also want a temporary ("ex-parte") order. The clerk will give you the forms.

If you are in immediate danger of abuse and the court is closed, you may get an emergency order by going to the nearest police department. If you are issued an emergency order, it will only be good until the close of the next day that the court is open. For the protection to remain in effect, you must go to court before the close of the next business day to request an abuse prevention order.

Note: You may also go to the superior court in the county in which you live, or to the Boston Municipal Court if you live in Boston, but most abuse prevention orders are taken out of the district courts or probate and family courts.

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back to topStep 2: Bring identification and information about the abuser.

It is sometimes helpful to bring the following information about the abuser:

  • a photo,
  • addresses of residence and employment,
  • phone numbers,
  • a description and plate number of the abuser's car,
  • history of drugs or gun ownership.
Remember to bring some form of identification (a driver's license or other identification that includes your picture).

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back to topStep 3: Fill out the necessary forms.

The clerk will provide you with the forms that you need to fill out. On the complaint for abuse prevention form, you will be the "plaintiff" and the abuser will be the "defendant." Write about the most recent incidents of violence, using descriptive language - words like "slapping," hitting," "grabbing," threatening," "choking," etc. - that fits your situation. Include details and dates, if possible. Be specific. It will also be important to write any previous court action you have taken against the abuser.

Be sure to write your name and a safe mailing address and phone number. If you are staying at a shelter, give a Post Office Box, not a street address.

If you need assistance filling out the form, ask the clerk for help. Some courts may have an advocate that can assist you. Another option is to find help through one of the domestic violence agencies listed on our MA State and Local Programs page.

You will find links to the forms you will need at our Download Court Forms page.

Note: Be sure to sign the forms in front of the court clerk.

Once you have completed your paperwork, return them to the clerk. The probation department will then run a "check" of the abuser's criminal and protective order history.

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back to topStep 4: The ex-parte hearing

When the background check of the abuser is complete, the entire file is brought into the courtroom for your ex-parte hearing. This is a preliminary hearing that can grant you a temporary restraining order for 10 business days. At this hearing, the judge will read your petition and ask you why you want a 209A prevention order.*

If the judge grants a temporary restraining order, the court clerk will give you a copy of the order. Review the order before you leave the courthouse to make sure that the information is correct. If something is wrong or missing, ask the clerk to correct the order before you leave. Be sure to keep it with you at all times. You may want to keep copies in your car, workplace, or daycare. The judge will also set a hearing date for your return hearing.

If the judge does not grant you a temporary restraining order at the ex-parte hearing, you will still be given a court date for a return hearing. This hearing will be scheduled to occur within the next 10 days, at the time shown on the notice of hearing.

* M.G.L.A. 209A § 4

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back to topStep 5: Service of process

The abuser must be "served," or given papers that tell him about the hearing date and your temporary restraining order (if the judge gave you one).

The clerk will either send the order to the police, or have you bring it to the police yourself. The police will then find the abuser and serve him notice of the temporary restraining order (if the judge gave you one) as well as the scheduled "return hearing". There is no charge to have the authorities serve the abuser.

Do not attempt to serve the papers on the abuser yourself.

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back to topStep 6: What will I have to prove at the return hearing?

As the plaintiff requesting an abuser prevention order, you must:

  • Prove that the defendant has committed acts of domestic violence (as defined by the law) against you or your minor children, and
  • Convince a judge that you need protection and the specific things you asked for in the complaint (petition).
See the Preparing Your Case section under the Preparing for Court tab at the top of this page for ways you can show the judge that you were abused.

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back to topStep 7: The hearing

A judge will set a hearing date within 10 business days of filing your temporary order.

You must go to the hearing. If you do not go to the hearing, your temporary restraining order will expire and you will have to start the process over. If you do not show up at the hearing, it may be harder for you to get abuse prevention orders in the future.

If the abuser has received notice of the hearing, but does not show up, the judge will continue with the hearing. The temporary order will remain in effect and you will continue to be protected by it until the expiration date of the order. If the abuser has not received notice of the hearing and does not show up, the judge may order a new hearing date and extend your temporary restraining order.

Continuance. You have the right to bring a lawyer to represent you at the hearing. If you show up to court and the abuser has a lawyer and you do not, you may ask the judge for a "continuance" to set a later court date so you can have time to find a lawyer for yourself.

It is a good idea to see a lawyer if you think the abuser will challenge custody or child support, or if you have been severely injured or expect an injury to last a long time. If the court does issue a continuance, the court should also reissue or extend your temporary order since your original one will probably expire before the rescheduled hearing.

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After the hearing

back to topWhat should I do when I leave the courthouse?

Here are some ideas for things that you may want to do when leaving court – you will have to decide which ones work for you:

  • Make several copies of the protective order as soon as possible.
  • Keep a copy of the order with you at all times.
  • Leave copies of the order at your work place, at your home, at the children’s school or daycare, in your car, with a sympathetic neighbor, and so on.
  • Give a copy to the security guard or person at the front desk where you live and/or work along with a photo of the abuser.
  • Give a copy of the order to anyone who is named in and protected by the order.
  • One week after court, call your local law enforcement offices to make sure they have received copies of the protective order.  If they have not, you may want to ask if you can deliver a copy to them.
  • Take steps to safety plan, including possibly changing your locks and your phone number.
Ongoing safety planning is important after receiving the order. People can do a number of things to increase their safety during violent incidents, when preparing to leave an abusive relationship, and when they are at home, work, and school.  Many batterers obey protective orders, but some do not.  It is important to build on the things you have already been doing to keep yourself safe.  For more information please visit the Staying Safe page.  Advocates at local resource centers can assist you in designing a safety plan and can provide other forms of support.

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back to topWhat can I do if the abuser violates the order?

You can call the police and/or report the violation to the court.  It can be a crime and contempt of court for violating an abuse prevention order.  Under Massachsuetts law, a violation of an order can be punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment for up to 2.5 years, or both.  In addition, the judge is also supposed to order the abuser to complete a certified batterer's intervention program (unless the judge finds good cause why this should not happen).  Note: If the judge determines that the abuser violated the order to retaliate against being reporting to the department of revenue for failure to pay child support payments or for the establishment of paternity, the abuser will be ordere to pay a fine of at least $1,000 and be sentenced to at least 60 days in jail.*   

If the police are not involved or do not arrest him/her or file a criminal complaint against him/her, you may still be able to go to the district court and take out a criminal complaint against him/her.

* M.G.L.A. 209A § 7

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back to topHow do I change or extend my abuse prevention order?

You may apply to the court to have your abuse prevention order extended, up through the day that it expires, even if no new acts of abuse occurred while you have had your order.*  You will have to go back to court for a short hearing to tell the judge why you believe it is necessary to extend the order. A judge can extend your order for another time period (usually another year) or, in some cases, make your order “permanent.” You may be able to extend your order without the abuser appearing in court.

For any other changes, call the clerk of court to find out how you can include them on your order. You can find this contact information on the MA Courthouse Locations page. The court will usually schedule another hearing and give the abuser the chance to appear before changing your order.

* M.G.L.A. 209A § 3

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back to topCan I get my abuse prevention order if I move?

Your abuse prevention order can be enforced even if you move to another state. If you move, your order must be given “full faith and credit” in any other state, territorial or tribal court, which means that your order will be good wherever you go.  Please see our Moving with an Abuse Prevention Order page.

If you are moving to a new state, you may want to call the National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith & Credit (1-800-903-0111 x 2) for information on enforcing your order in a new state.

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