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Legal Information: Massachusetts

Restraining Orders

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Laws current as of December 14, 2023

What 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:

  • attempting to cause you physical harm;
  • causing you physical harm;
  • placing you in fear of immediate serious physical harm; or
  • causing you to have sexual relations against your will (involuntarily) due to force, threat, or duress.1

Note: If you don’t qualify for an abuse prevention order, you may qualify for a harassment prevention order. For more information, see our Harassment Prevention Order section.

1 M.G.L.A 209A § 1

What types of abuse prevention orders are there? How long do they last?

There are three types of orders.

Emergency protective orders: The police may be able to help you get an emergency protective order, which is issued by a judge over the telephone through something called the “Emergency Judicial Response System,” if you are unable to appear in court to file for an order because:

  • the court is closed; or
  • due to your physical condition, it would present a “severe hardship” for you to get to court.1

To grant you the order, the judge must believe that there is a substantial likelihood of immediate danger of abuse. Once the judge authorizes the order over the phone to the police, the police would write it down on a form provided by the court and deliver it the next business day to the clerk-magistrate in the appropriate court. You will then have to appear in court on the next business day to file your complaint (petition) for an order. If your severe physical condition prevents you from appearing in court, then you can send someone else on your behalf to file the complaint and s/he will have to file an affidavit that explains the circumstances that make it impossible for you to appear in court yourself.1 You can read more about this process in the After-hours Abuse Prevention Packet Instructions, available on the Massachusetts Court System website.

Temporary (ex parte) orders: When you go to court to file for an abuse prevention order, you can request a temporary ex parte order. A temporary ex parte order can be granted immediately, without a full court hearing and without the abuser being notified beforehand if the judge believes there is a substantial likelihood of immediate danger of abuse. The order will last until the hearing, which will be within ten business days.2

Long-term orders: A long-term abuse prevention order can be issued after the abuser is given notice and the chance to appear at a court hearing where you and the abuser will each have a chance to present evidence to the judge. If you can prove that you were abused, the judge can issue you an order for up to one year. The order will state the time and date that the order will expire as well as the date and time that you can appear in court to ask for the order to be extended. When the expiration date stated on the order is on a weekend day, a holiday, or a date when the court is closed to business, the order shall not expire until the next date that the court is open. The order can later be extended permanently.4 For more information on how to extend an order, see How do I change or extend my abuse prevention order?

1 M.G.L.A. 209A § 5; see also M.G.L.A. 211B § 9(vi)
2 M.G.L.A. 209A § 4
3 M.G.L.A. 209A § 3
4 M.G.L.A. 209A § 3(i)

What protections can I get in an abuse prevention order?

A temporary abuse prevention order can do any of the following:

  1. order the abuser to:
    • not abuse you as follows:
      • not harm you;
      • not threaten you;
      • not attempt to harm you physically;
      • not place you in fear of immediate serious physical harm; and
      • not use force, threat, or duress to make you have sexual relations;1
    • not abuse your children;
    • stop contacting you and any children in your custody;
    • move out of the home if you live together, give you back the house keys, and not return to the home;
    • stay away from your residence and place of work;2
    • stay away from your school;3
    • stay away from your children’s school or daycare;
    • have unsupervised visitation, supervised visitation with certain limitations put in place to protect you and your children, or no visitation;4
    • surrender any and all firearms and firearm identification cards to the police;5 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;6
  2. give you:
    • temporary custody of your children - but, see the “Note” below;2
    • possession, care, and control of any domesticated animal owned or kept by you, the abuser, or a child living in your household;6 and
    • other reasonable requests that the judge believes are necessary to protect you from abuse.3

A final abuse prevention order can:

  • include everything mentioned above; and
  • in addition:
    • pay you temporary child support if any children that you have with the abuser live with you;
    • pay you temporary spousal support if you are married; and
    • order the abuser to:
      • pay for any losses you suffered as a direct result of the abuse, such as:
        • lost wages;
        • costs for turning back on any utilities the abuser turned off;
        • any costs you spent due to injuries s/he caused, such as medical bills;
        • costs to change or repair locks to your door;
        • costs for personal property s/he destroyed; or
        • attorney’s fees.7

    Note: If there is already a custody or child support order established or pending from the probate and 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 and family court can later change the terms of custody or support, however, and that judge will have the final say in the matter. If there is no established or pending custody order from the probate and family court, then an order of temporary custody can last for the full length of the abuse prevention order.8

    The Massachusetts Court System website has an information sheet that clearly explains in detail what each of the protections mean in your order. For example, if the abuser is ordered to leave the home, s/he cannot turn off the utilities, even if the utilities are in his/her name only. You can read more here.

    1 M.G.L.A. 209A §§ 1; 3; 4; See complaint for protection from abuse, page 1
    2 M.G.L.A. 209A §§ 3; 4
    3 See complaint for protection from abuse, page 1
    4 See complaint for protection from abuse, page 2
    5 M.G.L.A. 209A § 3B
    6 M.G.L.A. 209A § 11(a)
    7 M.G.L.A. 209A § 3; see complaint for protection from abuse, page 1
    8 M.G.L.A. 209A § 3

    If the abuser gets visitation, what limitations can be included in the abuse prevention order to protect me and my child?

    If the judge gives the abuser visitation with your children as part of your abuse prevention order, the judge should make sure that your and your children’s well-being and safety are protected by doing one or more of the following:

    • ordering supervised exchange of the child, either with a third party or in a protected setting, such as a visitation center;
    • ordering supervised visitation with the child by an appropriate third party or at a visitation center;
    • ordering the abuser to pay the costs for supervised visitation at a visitation center;
    • ordering the abuser to attend and complete a batterers’ treatment program in order to get visitation;
    • ordering the abuser to not drink and to not have or use drugs during the visitation and for 24 hours before the visit;
    • prohibiting overnight visitation;
    • requiring the abuser to deposit money with the court (bond) as an incentive to ensure the safe return of the child;
    • ordering an investigation or appointing a guardian ad litem or attorney for the child; or
    • ordering any other condition that the judge believes is necessary.1

    Note: Although many courts can issue abuse prevention orders, including superior, district, Boston municipal, and family and probate courts, if you are asking for visitation, supervised or otherwise, to be included in your order, only the probate and family court can order visitation in an abuse prevention order.2

    1 ​M.G.L.A. 209A § 3
    2 ​See Guide to Completing G.L. c. 209A Forms, available on the Massachusetts government website

    In which county can I file for an abuse prevention order?

    You can file for an abuse prevention order in the county where you live. If you have left your home temporarily to avoid abuse, you have the option of filing in the county in which you are temporarily living or in the county where you permanently live.1

    Although you can ask the court clerk to keep the address where you are living confidential (“impound” your address),2 if you have left your home to avoid abuse, you may not want to file in the county where you are temporarily staying because this would alert the abuser to which county you are temporarily living in.

    1 M.G.L.A. 209A § 2
    2 M.G.L.A. 209A § 3(g)

    If the abuser lives in a different state, can I still get an order against him/her?

    If you live in Massachusetts and the abuser does not, two issues could come up. First, the judge may not have “personal jurisdiction” over an out-of-state abuser, meaning the court may not be able to grant an order against him/her. Second, even if the judge issues an order, the judge could be limited in terms of what the order can include.

    Personal jurisdiction

    There are a few ways that a court can have personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state abuser:

    1. The abuser has a substantial connection to your state. Perhaps the abuser regularly travels to your state to visit you, for business, to see extended family, or the abuser lived in your state and recently fled.
    2. One of the acts of abuse “happened” in your state. Perhaps the abuser sends you threatening texts or harassing phone calls from another state but you read the messages or answer the calls while you are in your state. The judge could decide that the abuse “happened” to you while you were in your state. It may also be possible that the abuser was in your state when s/he abused you s/he but has since left the state.
    3. If you file your petition and the abuser gets served with the court petition while s/he is in your state, this is another way for the court to get jurisdiction.

    However, even if none of the above apply to your situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t get an order. You may be granted an order on consent or the judge may find other circumstances that allow the order to be granted. You can read more about personal jurisdiction in our Court System Basics - Personal Jurisdiction section.

    Limitations on what can be included in the order

    If the judge finds that the court does not have personal jurisdiction over the out-of-state abuser, the judge might still be able to issue an order due to the Massachusetts Guidelines for Judicial Practice. The judge can order the abuser to “not” do certain things; however, the judge may not be able to make the abuser do certain things or take certain actions (known as “imposing affirmative duties”). For example, the order can say things like “do not harass; do not contact; do not come near the home of the petitioner” but it cannot say things like “pay child support; surrender your weapons to the state police; reimburse the petitioner for property damage.”1

    Note: If the judge in your state refuses to issue an order, you can file for an order in the courthouse in the state where the abuser lives. However, remember that you will likely need to file the petition in person and attend various court dates, which could be difficult if the abuser’s state is far away.

    1 MA Abuse Prevention Proceedings Guideline 3:03A; see Caplan v. Donovan, 450 Mass. 463 (Mass. 2008)