How to File for Divorce in Washington DC

How to file divorce in DC

When you file for divorce in the District of Columbia, one of the best things you can do is prepare yourself with the information you’ll need from the start until you reach the finish line.

Here are some of the important things to know when filing for divorce in the District of Columbia.

What Information Should I Gather to Prep for Divorce in the District of Columbia?

important information

Pulling together the information you’ll need to make your best case can take quite a while, so it’s best to start early.

In some cases, it’s smart to gather information before you even make your spouse aware of your intentions.  That way, he or she can’t block your efforts by hiding information once you make your intentions known.

To see what information you’ll need, we’ve prepared a Divorce Information Checklist.   You can access it as part of our article, The Ultimate Divorce Checklist:  The Information You Need to Prepare for  Divorce.

Determining Which Divorce Procedure to Use

Divorce Procedure to Use

You can approach your divorce several possible ways.  The method you decide is driven in large part by your levels of trust and cooperation with your spouse, and the types of issues you need to resolve.

To see what form of divorce might be the most appropriate for your circumstances, take a look at our article, What Are the Types of Divorce, to learn about your options before you make a final decision.

What Forms Do I Need?

Necessary Forms to Prepare

To start a divorce in the District of Columbia, you will need to file the following papers at the D.C. Family Court Central Intake Center:

  • Complaint for Divorce. Go here for a Complaint for Divorce form that you can fill out on your computer. You will need to print it out and file it at court. You must sign the complaint but you do not need to have it notarized.
  • A Summons. It is included with the on-line Complaint form.
  • Family Court Cross-Reference Form.  Go here for a cross-reference form that you can fill out on your computer. You will need to print it out and file it at court.

An $80 filing fee must also be paid when you file.  It can be made by cash, money order or credit card.  If you can’t afford the filing fee, you can file a request for a fee waiver.

Court forms are also available at the Family Court Central Intake Center or the Family Court Self-Help Center.

How Do I File My Forms?

How Do You File Your Forms for a Divorce

Once your forms are complete, take your forms to the Family Court Central Intake Center. A clerk will process the paperwork and your case will be assigned a case number.

The clerk will give you a date-stamped copy of the Complaint and the Summons and a Notice of Initial Hearing. This notice tells you the date, time, courtroom and judge for the first hearing in your case.

How Do I Serve My Forms on My Spouse?

After your forms have been filed with the court, you must notify your spouse of your intention to divorce them by making sure they receive a copy of the summons and complaint.  There are several ways to legally do this in the District of Columbia.

  • Personal service involves asking an adult who is not part of the case to hand deliver the paperwork to the other party.  You can ask a friend or a relative, or a process server, but you can’t do this yourself.  You can serve the other party anywhere that you can find them.
  • Substitute service at home entails asking an adult who is not involved in the case to hand deliver the paperwork to another adult who lives in the same home as the other party.
  • Certified mail, return receipt occurs when you mail the summons and complaint to the other party.  You can do this yourself at the post office.  The post office will return the receipt to you to prove service has been completed.  The other party, or an adult who actually lives in the same home, must sign the green card.

If you can’t find the other party, you can file a Motion to Serve by Publication or Posting.  You must first attempt to find the other party and state as such in your motion.  Service by publication means a judge will allow you to publish a notice in two newspapers once a week for three weeks.

Service by posting means that you put up a legal notice at the courthouse.  This is usually done when you can’t afford service by publication costs.  If the motion to post is granted, the court clerk’s office will take care of posting the notice for the required 21 days.

You have 60 days to complete proof of service after filing your paperwork with the court.

What are the Steps for Getting a Divorce After I’ve Filed?

As you file paperwork with the court, you must complete proof of service by having the paperwork legally served on your spouse.  You can accomplish this through a personal friend, a process server, certified mail, or service by publication or posting.

You will submit an affidavit with the court to verify that this important step has been completed.

Your spouse will then have 21 days to file a response with the court.  If they don’t comply, you can seek a default judgment.

If you can work out all issues in advance, you will be granted an uncontested divorce.  This is the quickest and cheapest way to complete the process.

If you can’t agree on all issues, you will attempt to negotiate a settlement using mediation or a collaborative approach.  Hot button issues are generally child custody and visitation, how assets are divided, and alimony, among others.

When you still can’t reach agreement, it may be necessary to litigate your case.  You can go through arbitration or possibly prepare for a trial.  Most cases are settled long before a trial takes place.  But if you are required to do so, you will appear in front of a judge, call witnesses, present evidence, and have a judge rule on various parts of your case.

From this, a final settlement will be created and approved by the court.

FAQs About Getting a Divorce in the District of Columbia

How much does it cost to file for a divorce?

cost to file for a divorce

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 as well, such as publication of notices, and others.

Related Reading: A Guide to Divorce Financial Planning.

Can divorce fees be waived?

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.

Can I file for divorce online?

divorce online

No.  You must file your paperwork at the Family Court Central Intake Center where a clerk will process the paperwork and you will be assigned a case number.

Can I file for divorce without a lawyer?

file for divorce without a lawyer

Yes.  You do not need an attorney in the District of Columbia to handle your divorce case.

What are the residency requirements for getting a divorce?

You or your spouse must have lived in D.C. for six months immediately preceding when you file for divorce.

How long does it take to get a divorce in the District of Columbia?

How long does it take

It depends on what kind of divorce you go through.

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.

Either party can appeal during this 30-day period and the divorce won’t be final until the appeal is resolved.

In a contested divorce, your case could 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.

Can I file for divorce while I’m pregnant?

divorce while I am pregnant

You can file for divorce, but some parts of the divorce may be more complicated as a result.  Determining paternity, child custody and support will be the primary issues at hand.

In general, the husband is considered to be the legal father of any child born during the marriage.

But if a child born during the marriage is not the husband’s child, paternity must be established before the divorce process can start. If paternity is not established, the husband will remain the legal father, and will still be legally responsible for the child.

If I’m in the military, how does that affect filing for divorce?


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 Uniform 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.

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