Divorce Laws in Washington DC

Divorce Laws in DC

Aside from the emotional and financial toll that divorce can take on you, understanding the legal aspects of divorce in the District of Columbia are essential for you to navigate the complex challenges facing you.

Here are some of the key divorce laws you need to know to help you better understand what lies ahead.

The Basic Divorce Laws Regarding Divorce in District of Columbia

The District of Columbia is a no-fault jurisdiction and you can only get divorced based on mutually agreed upon separation of six months, or if one spouse separates from the other for one year.

Alimony can be paid to one spouse by the other during or after a divorce or legal separation.  By law, several factors are considered to reach an amount and duration that provides reasonable and necessary support.

A Child Support Guideline law determines how much child support must be paid.  There is a presumptive amount that is ordered by a judge in most cases, but it can be modified based on individual circumstances.

A child custody and visitation plan must be approved by the courts.  In addition, physical and legal custody must also be determined.  Generally, courts prefer that both parents take an active role in their children’s lives, unless extenuating circumstances are present.

The District of Columbia is an equitable distribution jurisdiction, so all marital property is divided equitably, but this may not mean equally.  Several factors come into play to determine a fair and reasonable split of property.  Debts are treated in a similar fashion.

Read More: What Are the Types of Divorce?

How is the Division of Property Handled?

division of property handled

Before property can be divided in a District of Columbia divorce, it must first be determined which assets qualify as marital property and are therefore subject to division.

Generally, any assets (and debts) acquired during a marriage are considered marital property.  It does not matter if only one spouse is on title to the asset.

There are exceptions to this, including inheritances and gifts, which may be considered separate, as long as they are not commingled.

Once marital assets are identified and valued, the court will consider several factors in attempting to come up with a fair division.  These relevant factors for each spouse include:

  • length of the marriage
  • age and health
  • occupation, vocational skills, and employability
  • assets
  • amount and sources of income
  • debts and needs
  • opportunity for future acquisition of assets and income
  • obligations from a prior marriage or for other children
  • contributions to the family unit as a homemaker or otherwise
  • increase or decrease in income resulting from the marriage, including homemaking or child care responsibilities
  • contributions to education of the other spouse that increased earning ability
  • contributions to the acquisition, preservation, or increased value of marital property, and
  • contributions to any decrease in value or waste of marital property
  • the effects of child custody arrangements
  • whether a spouse is also receiving alimony
  • whether one or both spouses acquired a particular asset after separation
  • tax consequences of the property division

A judge can also consider if a spouse’s behavior contributed to the breakup of the marriage (i.e. adultery or drug addiction), even though these are not used as grounds for divorce.

Retirement Plans and Pensions

Retirement Plans and Pensions get divided

Pensions and 401k plans earned during a marriage are considered marital property as well and must be included in the equitable division of assets.

Retirement accounts can be difficult to value accurately.  Because of this, spouses often hire an expert to determine the value. These experts may be a certified divorce financial analyst, accountant, pension valuator, actuary, or business appraiser.

After values for each account are determined, they are split according to the settlement agreement.  Legally for this to happen, an attorney or a specialized firm must create a qualified domestic relations order, often referred to as a QDRO.

Did you know that you can get a QDRO online? Well, if you’re looking to do so, we highly recommend using QDRO Counsel. Their comprehensible platform makes drafting and filing your QDRO a breeze.

Check Out QDRO Counsel Here!

The QDRO is submitted to the plan administrator and the court for approval.  When executed, the QDRO makes a spouse an alternate payee and creates a separate account.

Read More:  The Ultimate Guide to QDROs: Everything You Need to Know

Dividing Bank Accounts

Bank accounts with assets acquired during a marriage are considered marital property in D.C.  They must be divided like all other marital assets.

If you have a separate bank account from before the marriage, and the assets are kept separate, you argue the funds in the account are your assets only.

Also, if you inherit a sum of money and you place it in a separate account, those funds will remain separate. But if you place inheritances or gifts into accounts jointly owned by both spouses, those assets can become marital property and will split accordingly.

What About Debts?


Debts are treated much the same way as assets in a divorce.  Either the spouses must decide how they are to be divided, or the courts will decide for them.

Debts acquired during the marriage will be divided fairly and equitably, but not always equally.

It’s important to note that debts incurred by both spouses are always divided equally in the eyes of creditors, no matter what your divorce settlement lays out.

If your name still appears on the debt, you are responsible for it, no matter what your agreement with your spouse says.

Gifts and Inheritances

In D.C., inheritances and gifts are considered separate assets, even if they are acquired during marriage.

They are not subject to equitable division, unless they were commingled during the marriage.  For example, if you inherit a sum of money and deposit it into a joint bank account, your spouse can claim the funds were commingled and therefore subject to division.

Alimony (Spousal Support)


Alimony is also called spousal support in the District of Columbia.  It is financial support paid to one spouse by the other spouse after a divorce or legal separation and is awarded to provide “reasonable and necessary” support.

Either spouse can request alimony which can be paid for a specific amount of time or indefinitely.

Temporary alimony, also called pendente lite alimony, is granted while a case is in progress to assist one spouse until the case concludes.

By law, D.C. courts must review all of the relevant factors in your situation.  Those factors include:

  • The ability of the party requesting alimony to support him- or herself
  • The time necessary for the party requesting alimony to get a job or get training so s/he can become employed
  • The standard of living established during the marriage
  • Length of the marriage
  • Circumstances leading to the separation
  • Each party’s age
  • Physical and mental condition of each party
  • Ability of the spouse paying alimony to support him- or herself while making payments;
  • Financial needs and resources of each party, including income, potential income, previous awards of child support, financial obligations, rights to receive retirement benefits
  • Other factors as appropriate

Spouses can privately agree to alimony, or a spouse can ask the court to rule on alimony as part of the divorce settlement.

If spouses agree, alimony can be for as long as you want.  But when you disagree, the court will decide for you.

Alimony can also be modified after the fact if there are significant financial changes for either party.

In most cases, alimony ends when the person receiving it gets remarried.

You can get the necessary court pleadings to file for alimony online, or at the D.C. Superior Court Family Court Central Intake Center, 500 Indiana Avenue NW (room JM-540), Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

For more information, you can also visit the Family Court Self-Help Center, a free walk-in clinic located in the DC Superior Court, in Room JM-570.

Read More:  Everything You Need to Know About Alimony

How is Child Support Calculated?

Child Support

Parents have a legal obligation to support their children.  Court ordered support can take many forms, including money, health insurance or paying for other expenses.

In most cases, the child will live with one parent most of the time, and this parent may have the right to receive child support. If a child spends approximately the same amount of time with each parent, the parent who earns more may need to pay child support to the other parent.

In most situations, the child support case must be filed where the parent who owes child support lives. For example, if the child lives with her mother in D.C., but the father lives in New York, a child support case would normally be filed in New York.

The District of Columbia uses a Child Support Guideline law that determines how much support must be paid.  The Guideline sets a presumptive amount which is what is ordered by a judge in most cases.  However, a judge can raise or lower the amount at his or her discretion.

Under D.C. law, only certain kinds of information are used to calculate the Guideline amount, including:

  • The gross income of both parents
  • The amount of any court-ordered child support paid by either parent for another child
  • The cost of the child’s health insurance premiums and extraordinary medical expenses
  • The cost of reasonable child care expenses for the child
  • The number of children in the child support case
  • The number of other biological or adopted children living in each parent’s home
  • The amount of time the child spends with each parent
D.C. law also provides that child support lasts until the child is 21 unless the child is emancipated. Emancipation can happen before age 21 if the child gets married, joins the military, or becomes self-supporting.

Child support amounts can be changed to either increase, decrease, or terminate support.  The parent filing the motion must provide proof to the court to support the request and the support amount must differ by at least 15% in most cases.  Some situations that might cause a change can include:

  • A change in custody arrangements
  • A job change, such as when either parent gets a new job, loses a job, or retires
  • A health change, such as when either parent cannot work because of health problems or receives short- or long-term disability
  • A change in the health of the child
  • A change in the public benefits received by either parent or the child
  • The incarceration of the parent who pays the support
  • The emancipation of the child

You can either start a child support case or seek a modification by asking the Child Support Services Division of the Office of the Attorney General to file a case, by working with a private attorney, or by filing a case on your own.

Read More: The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children (and How to Help Them Cope); The Ultimate Guide to Child Support

Determining Child Custody

Child Custody

If you and your spouse have minor children, custody will need to be determined as part of your D.C. divorce.  Physical and legal custody must both be decided.

Physical custody is the place and parent where a child lives, eats and sleeps.  You can have joint physical custody where a child stays with each parent some of the time, or sole physical custody where a child lives mostly with one parent.

Legal custody is which parent is responsible for making the major decisions in a child’s life, such as medical decisions, church and school attendance and other important issues.  Joint or sole legal custody are options.

Courts prefer that parents come up with an agreed upon parenting plan that addresses all issues.  But when parents can’t agree, the court will do so for them.

If you can’t agree, it’s possible to go through mediation.  Parents can work with the Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division (202-879-1549) where trained mediators work with parents to develop an agreement. You can use Multi-Door without having a court case.

Before a court can make a ruling, the court must have authority to decide custody issues.  There are several ways D.C. courts could have jurisdiction.

The most common is when D.C. is currently or was very recently the child’s home state. This is defined as:

  • The child has been living in D.C. for at least six months before the case is filed, or
  • The child lived in D.C. and has been away less than six months, and even though the child is no longer in D.C., a parent or person acting as a parent continues to live in D.C.

When a judge must rule on custody, there are several factors used to determine what is the best interest of the child.

D.C. law says the judge must specifically consider these factors:

  • The wishes of the child
  • The wishes of the parents
  • The child’s relationship with his or her parents, siblings, and others
  • The child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community
  • The mental and physical health of all individuals involved
  • Evidence of domestic violence
  • The parents’ ability to communicate and make shared decisions about the child
  • The willingness of the parents to share custody
  • The prior involvement of each parent in the child’s life
  • The potential disruption of the child’s social and school life
  • The distance between the parents’ homes
  • The demands of parental employment
  • The age and number of children
  • The sincerity of each parent’s request
  • The parent’s ability to financially support a joint custody arrangement
  • The impact on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibilities, and medical assistance
  • The benefit to the parents

In limited circumstances, other family members can file for custody of a child.  This could be a grandparent, uncle, aunt, older sibling, or a friend.

Once a custody agreement is in place, it can be modified by filing a Motion to Modify Custody/Visitation. This may be done when there are significant changes in either parent’s situation after the original order was put in place.

The Family Court Self-Help Center is a free walk-in clinic located in the DC Superior Court, 500 Indiana Avenue, NW, in Room JM-570. It is open Monday through Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and can assist with child custody issues and direct you to other free legal resources.

To avoid issues in your co-parenting relationship, we recommend using Our Family Wizard: our #1 choice for co-parenting services!

The impact of substance abuse

Substance abuse may place a child in danger and if this is the case, custody and visitation can be restricted or denied by the court.

If a parent begins to abuse drugs or alcohol after a divorce is finalized, then the other parent can seek a modification of current custody and visitation orders to protect the child.

What role does domestic violence play?

domestic violence

Domestic violence can include physical harm, threats, psychological abuse, or malicious property damage.  It can be directed at any family member, not just a spouse.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, the first thing you must do is protect your safety and the safety of anyone else being threatened.  Call 911 if needed and vacate your premises immediately.

You can immediately seek out a temporary restraining order (TRO) that will prevent the abuser from causing any additional harm or threats of violence.

As you work through your divorce, domestic violence will have an influence on child custody and visitation.  If the court feels that a child is in physical or psychological danger, visitation can be denied, restricted or take place under supervision.

Washington DC Divorce Law FAQs

How is adultery treated in District of Columbia divorce laws?


D.C. is a no-fault jurisdiction and adultery cannot be used as a reason to get a divorce.  However, adultery might be taken into consideration with a division of marital property, alimony, or custody of children.

Read More:  37 ½ (Not So) Obvious Signs Your Wife is Cheating on You

What is a bifurcation of marital status, and how does it work?

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.

What are disclosure obligations?

disclosure obligations

In D.C., you must disclose all your assets, income, debts and other financial obligations to your spouse.  This helps to fairly determine alimony, child support and a division of assets.

What about health insurance during and after divorce?

health insurance during and after divorce

In the District of Columbia, you may be required to maintain health insurance for your spouse and children during a divorce as part of a court motion.

After the divorce, courts want to ensure that health insurance for children continues, and this will most always be part of the settlement agreement.

Spouses are typically not covered under a spouse’s healthcare plan after a divorce, unless it is specified in the settlement agreement.

Generally, this means an ex-spouse will need to find health coverage through other means.  That could include COBRA coverage or through the insurance marketplace.

Are there special rules and considerations for military divorces?

Special Considerations Military Divorces

Many rules for military divorces are the same as they are for civilian divorces in the District of Columbia, but there are some notable differences as well.

One of the parties must have lived in D.C. for six months prior to filing for divorce.

The grounds are the same as for civilian divorces.  The parties have mutually and voluntarily lived separate and apart without cohabitation for 6 months, or the parties have lived separate and apart without cohabitation for 1 year.  This also applies to couples who want a legal separation.

Property division takes place through equitable distribution.  If a court awards the non-military spouse a share of military retirement pay, The Military Retirement Pay, Continued Benefits, and the Uniformed  Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act (USFSPA) provides that the parties must have been married at least 10 years while the military member was active duty in order for the former spouse to receive direct payments.

USFSPA permits former unremarried spouses to continue receiving commissary, exchange, and health care benefits after a divorce if the parties were married for 20 years while the military member was active duty.

If the military member was active duty for 20 years, but the parties were only married for 15 years of the active duty service period, the former spouse is entitled to full military medical benefits for one year following the divorce.

A military spouse can request a delay in divorce proceedings so that his or her military duties are not impacted.  Legal action can be delayed when he or she is on active duty plus 60 days beyond the end of his or her enlistment.

Child support and alimony are determined by D.C. jurisdiction laws.  Child custody can be more complicated due to relocation or deployment orders.

What if my spouse does not respond to any divorce actions in a timely way?

Your spouse has 21 days to file a response after being served with paperwork in the District of Columbia.  If they choose not to respond, you can file a motion and request a judge to issue a default judgment for your divorce.

In most cases, all terms you are asking for are granted, including things like child support, alimony, a division of assets and other key issues.

Looking for more great tips about divorce?  Check out a few of our most popular articles.

Related Content