District of Columbia Divorce Guide
If you’re going through a divorce in the District of Columbia, there are several processes and laws you must be familiar with to make sure your rights are protected and you meet your legal responsibilities.
Here are several important things you should know.
- What Are Grounds for Divorce in the District of Columbia?
- Legal Separation vs. Divorce
- Annulment vs. Divorce
- What are your Options for Getting a Divorce in the District of Columbia?
- What is the Process of Getting a Divorce in the District of Columbia?
- Can I File for Divorce Without an Attorney?
- Can I File for Divorce Online?
- Can I Mail Divorce Papers?
- Refusing or Contesting a Divorce
- How Long Does a Divorce Take in the District of Columbia?
- Is there a Waiting Period?
- Expediting Your Divorce
- What is the Cost of a Divorce in the District of Columbia?
- Contested vs Uncontested Divorces
- Fault-based vs No-fault Divorce
- Divorce Decree vs Proof of Divorce
- Can I Reverse a Divorce in the District of Columbia?
- Bifurcated Divorce
- How Does Adultery Affect Divorce in the District of Columbia?
- Changing Your Name
- Bonus: Recommended Resources for a Better Divorce
Grounds for Divorce in the District of Columbia
You must meet three requirements to get a divorce in the District of Columbia.
Residency. You or your spouse must have lived in D.C. continuously for at least six months at the time you file your divorce complaint.
Proof of marriage. You must be able to prove that there is a valid marriage before the court can grant you a divorce. The plaintiff must bring an official copy (original or a certified copy) of the marriage certificate. If you and your spouse married in D.C., you can obtain one at the Marriage Bureau located at D.C. Superior Court, 500 Indiana Avenue, NW, room JM-690.
If you have a common law marriage, you must prove the marriage through testimony of friends and family, or through documents, to prove that a common law marriage exists.
Grounds. D.C. is a no-fault jurisdiction and there are only two grounds for divorce, both dealing with a time period of separation.
Six Months’ Mutual and Voluntary Separation means you and your spouse have agreed mutually and voluntarily to separate and have been living apart, without sexual relations, for at least six months before the date you file for divorce
One Year Separation means that whether or not you agreed to separate, you and your spouse have been living separate and apart, without sexual relations, for at least one year before the date you file for divorce.
Legal Separation vs. Divorce
Legal separation is permitted in D.C and is similar to divorce because it allows a couple to figure out how to best resolve assets, child custody, alimony support and other major concerns. The big difference is that the couple remained married without getting a divorce.
Spouses may choose legal separation for religious reasons, because divorce may be a conflict depending on their spiritual beliefs. At other times, legal separation may be a way to let a spouse keep health insurance and can provide tax benefits that only married couples can enjoy.
Also, if a noncitizen gets a divorce, they may be deported. But with a legal separation, they can stay in the country even if they don’t continue to live with their spouse.
Annulment vs. Divorce
Annulments in D.C. are rare and are only allowed in certain limited circumstances. An annulment is an equivalent as if a marriage never happened. The marriage is declared void.
You can ask a court to annul your marriage if you meet one of these requirements:
- At the time you married your spouse, one of you was unable to consent to the marriage because of mental incapacity
- You married your spouse as a result of your spouse’s force or fraud
- At the time you married your spouse, you were under 16 years old, and you did not voluntarily continue to live together as husband and wife after you turned 16 years old
- At the time you married your spouse, one of you was already legally married to someone else
- You married a close relative
However, some marriages are legally void from day one, meaning the people were never legally married at all. D.C. law does not recognize the following types of marriages:
- The marriage of close relatives
- The marriage of any persons, either of whom has been previously married and whose previous marriage has not been terminated by death or a decree of divorce (one of the people is still married to someone else).
The requirements for an annulment are the same for all marriages, whether by ceremony or common law.
After an annulment hearing, if an annulment is granted, you will get a copy of the order. Your annulment will be final 30 days after the “docketing date,” which could be a few days after the hearing.
What are your Options for Getting a Divorce in the District of Columbia?
How you go about the divorce process in the District of Columbia will be driven by your personal circumstances and the amount of conflict you have with your spouse. You have several possible ways you can move forward.
Do-It-Yourself divorce. This is known as an uncontested divorce. If you and your spouse can agree on all the issues in advance, you can file paperwork with the court stating this fact, and you will usually be granted a divorce in a short amount of time, the least amount of emotional stress, and the lowest possible costs. You may be able to go through the entire process without appearing in front of a judge or appearing only briefly to answer a few questions.
Online divorce. This is similar to a DIY divorce, except that you rely a lot more on pre-printed forms and online services or attorneys to help you complete the required paperwork. The automated approach can save a lot of money, but you need to be careful about making costly mistakes if you go this route.
Divorce mediation. You meet with a neutral third party who helps you work through the areas of disagreement you have, such as property division, child custody and visitation, and related issues. When you strike an agreement, you draw up a proposal and submit it to the court for approval. This is a quicker, cheaper, and less contentious route for many couples than going through a full-blown trial.
The D.C. Family Court offers a free mediation service through the Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division (202-879-1549) Trained mediators can work with you and your spouse to negotiate the terms of your divorce.
Collaborative divorce. This is an option for couples who still have a fair amount of cooperation and trust between them. Any disagreements are resolved respectfully and amicably using attorneys who are specially trained in collaborative law. That is less costly than other forms of divorce and leaves decisions with the couple, and not a judge. If collaboration fails, you can move forward with other types of divorce, but you will need to retain a different attorney if you do.
Litigation. Litigation is a traditional approach to divorce. You and your attorneys engage with your spouse and their attorneys in an attempt to negotiate a settlement before going to trial.
About 95% of all litigated divorces end this way. If you can reach an agreement through a negotiated settlement or arbitration instead of a trial, then you can save some time and aggravation.
Trial. When two people have tried other ways of settling their marital affairs, and there is a high degree of conflicts and outstanding issues, a trial often results. These can be long, drawn-out, and expensive with a judge who will make rulings based on applicable state law.
You may also not like the rulings that are decided by a judge, and you’ll have little recourse in most cases to modify the results.
What is the Process of Getting a Divorce in the District of Columbia?
Before you can file for divorce, you must meet residency requirements which state that either you or your spouse must have lived in D.C. for at least six months prior to filing.
D.C. is a no-fault jurisdiction. This means there are only two grounds for divorce. They are six months mutual and voluntary separation or one-year separation whether or not you agreed to separate. You and your spouse can live in the same home, but you must not cohabitate or have sexual relations.
For an uncontested divorce when you are the plaintiff, you start your case by filing a Complaint for Absolute Divorce. You will also need to fill out a Summons, a Vital Statistics form and a Family Court cross-reference form. When you file the complaint, a date and time for the first court hearing (initial hearing) will be scheduled.
After you file your paperwork, you have 60 days to serve your spouse with the summons and complaint. You can do this by personal service, substitute service at home or by certified mail, return receipt requested. If you can’t find your spouse, you can file a motion to request service by publication or by posting.
You need to file a proof of service with the court once this step has been completed.
The defendant will have 21 days to file a response to the complaint with the court. If no response is filed, then the plaintiff can seek a default judgment.
When a response is filed, you will either agree on all the issues (uncontested) or attempt to negotiate your differences to come up with a settlement agreement (contested).
If you can’t agree, then you will need to go to court and proceed with a trial, presenting evidence and testimony before a judge rules on various parts of your divorce. A division of assets, child custody and support, and alimony are among the major issues that will be decided.
When the judge grants your divorce, you will get a copy of the divorce order immediately after the hearing or in the mail. Your divorce will be final 30 days after the date the divorce order is stamped by the court.
Either party can file an appeal within those 30 days and ask the court to stay (postpone) the divorce order. If the stay is granted, the order does not become final until the appeal is resolved.
Can I File for Divorce Without an Attorney?
Yes. You do not have to hire an attorney to represent you in the District of Columbia. This is often the case when you and your spouse can agree on all issues and proceed with an uncontested divorce.
However, if you do disagree, it may be in your best interest to retain an attorney to protect your legal rights.
Can I File for Divorce Online?
You can start the process online by working with a firm that will help you complete initial paperwork or with an attorney who can assist you via email.
But once the paperwork is complete, you must file in person at the courthouse to start your D.C. divorce.
Our favorite resource for a fast and effective online divorce is: 3 Step Divorce.
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- $299 flat-fee with no hidden charges
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- Initial questionnaire takes less than 1 hour
- Library of free tools and resources
- Unlimited access to support agents by phone or email
- Immediate access to completed forms
- Assurance of 100% court-approval (or your money back!)
You can learn more by reading our 3StepDivorce review.
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Can I Mail Divorce Papers?
After you file with the court, one of the ways to complete proof of service is by certified mail, return receipt requested.
The receiving party will need to sign the green card that accompanies the certified mail to provide you with proof that the service was completed.
Refusing or Contesting a Divorce
In D.C., you can’t refuse to get divorced, but you can contest the terms of the divorce if you want.
Keep in mind that contested divorces take longer and are more expensive but you may need to go this route to protect your interests.
Read More: How to Prepare for a Divorce Trial
How Long Does a Divorce Take in the District of Columbia?
With an uncontested divorce, after you file paperwork, your spouse has 21 days to file an answer with the court.
If you submit an agreed upon settlement, the court may hold a brief hearing as soon as one can be scheduled. The length of time will depend on court backlogs and availability of judges.
After your case is reviewed and the judge approves the settlement, your divorce will be final 30 days after the divorce order is stamped by the court as “entered on docket.” This generally takes place within a couple of days after your hearing.
Contested divorces can take several months to resolve. It will depend on how well you cooperate, the nature and complexity of your issues, and other factors that could delay the process for a year or more, in some cases.
Is There a Waiting Period?
You must have lived in D.C. for at least six months prior to filing for a divorce.
Also, after your divorce has been signed off by the court, there is a 30-day waiting period before the divorce becomes final.
Expediting Your Divorce
The best way to expedite your divorce is to cooperate with your spouse in advance and reach agreement on all issues before you file. An uncontested divorce costs and less, goes faster, and with less anxiety than in a contested divorce.
If you do have disagreements, you can expedite things by being attentive to requests for information, appear on time at all court dates, and decide what is most important to you in the divorce and what parts you are willing to give up.
The bottom line is that the more confrontational you are, the longer the divorce will take.
What is the Cost of a Divorce in the District of Columbia?
Filing fees are $80 to start a divorce, custody, visitation or child support case in D.C. After the case has started, it costs $20 to file a counterclaim or a motion.
There may be other related fees, such as publication of notices, and others.
If you can’t afford to pay the fees, you may be able to apply for a fee waiver by filing an Application to Proceed Without Pre-Payment of Costs. This is also known as proceeding in forma pauperis.
If you get public benefits, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the court must grant a fee waiver.
If you don’t get public benefits, you may still get a fee waiver request approved if you have limited income.
A fee waiver will not pay an attorney’s fee but there are free legal service providers that may be able to provide an attorney to represent you in your case.
Contested vs Uncontested Divorce
A contested divorce means that you and your spouse do not agree on all the issues related to ending your marriage.
You will either have to negotiate out the contested issues or appear in front of a judge who will decide the issues for you during a trial.
An uncontested divorce means you have agreed on all issues prior to filing for a divorce with the court.
No-fault vs Fault-based Divorce
The District of Columbia permits no-fault divorces. You do not need to state a reason for your divorce, you only need to be separated without cohabitation for six months if your divorce is mutual, or separation for one year if you do not agree on getting a divorce.
In a fault-based divorce (which is not allowed in D.C.), you would need to state a specific reason for getting a divorce such as adultery, cruelty, or abandonment.
Divorce Decree vs. Proof of Divorce
A divorce decree is the court’s final order granting you a divorce. It contains detailed information about the terms and legalities of your District of Columbia divorce.
When the decree is finalized, you are single and free to marry again, if you choose to do so.
A proof of divorce is a certificate that only provides minimal information about your divorce including when and where the divorce took place. This certificate is often required when someone wants to get married again.
Marriage and divorce certificates are handled by the Superior Court of District of Columbia. Certificates cost $20 dollars for the first copy and $10 dollars each additional copy.
You can get a copy in person at:
500 Indiana Avenue, N.W., Room 4485
Washington, D.C. 20001
Phone: (202) 879-4840
Contact the court in advance to see what specific documentation is required to obtain a copy.
Can I Reverse a Divorce in the District of Columbia?
If you are the petitioner in a divorce, and you want to stop a divorce in progress, perhaps because you have reconciled with your spouse, you can do so by filing a request to dismiss the divorce complaint.
However, once a final settlement has been approved and the 30-day waiting period expires, your divorce will be final.
In some cases, D.C. courts may allow a bifurcated divorce to take place.
Bifurcation essentially divides a divorce into two separate actions. This takes place when spouses agree on most (but not all) aspects of their divorce.
A judge will allow aspects of the divorce to move forward such as child custody, alimony, a division of assets and other matters, but will still retain jurisdiction over the remaining unresolved issues.
The goal is to come back at a later date with a separate action to complete all things related to finalizing the divorce.
Most judges do not like to grant bifurcated divorces because it creates judicial inefficiencies and removes much of the incentive to complete a divorce action.
How Does Adultery Affect Divorce in the District of Columbia?
Because D.C. is a no-fault jurisdiction, adultery cannot be used as a reason to get a divorce. However, a judge will can use adultery or any other marital misconduct when deciding issues such as alimony, child support or a distribution of assets.
Changing Your Name
You will be presented either an option to restore your former name or request a court order for changing names when preparing your divorce forms.
The name change will be granted as part of your divorce. You may either receive a separate court order making your name change official, or else have your name change recorded on the final divorce decree. Either of these documents are accepted with all US agencies and organizations as evidence of your name change.
Just because you have a court order does not mean your name change has taken effect. You need to contact all your organizations to request your records are updated.
It’s time-consuming to contact each company and figure out what to send where, so we recommend using an Easy Name Change kit to cut out the 8 hours of research and paperwork that follows.
Recommended Divorce Resources
There are a lot of divorce resources that make big claims. We’ve tested a bunch of them. Most fall short. A few stand above the rest.
These are the tools and resources we’re excited to share with you because we know they can help you have a better divorce.
If you’re looking for recommendations in any of the following areas, we’ve got you covered:
- Online divorce
- QDRO preparation to divide retirement plans and pensions
- Masterclass on ninja tricks to negotiating with a narcissist
- Co-parenting apps
- Online dating
- Personal finance and budgeting apps
- Best place to sell your engagement ring
- And a whole lot more
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