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District of Columbia Divorce Laws

Every state has laws governing divorce. The same is true for the District of Columbia. If you’re contemplating divorce in the nation's capital, you should be familiar with the divorce laws in Washington, D.C. The laws can be complex, and it isn’t easy to navigate the family courts.

Here, we will highlight the divorce laws in Washington, D.C. We will also briefly explain the divorce process in D.C. While most couples hire divorce lawyers to handle their divorce case, you can handle it yourself. But remember that the judge won’t treat you differently because you don’t have a family law attorney. You may be at a significant disadvantage.

Read on and click the links below if you need additional information.

Legal Requirements for Divorce in Washington D.C.

Most states have a residency requirement to file for divorce. These laws require that a party live in-state for a specific period of time. In Washington, D.C., one party must have been a bona fide resident of the district for at least six months.

In the past, Washington, D.C. law required a voluntary separation period of six months or one year before filing for divorce. This provision could be especially difficult in cases involving domestic violence.

In 2023, the D.C. Council passed the Grounds for Divorce, Legal Separation, and Annulment Amendment Act. The Act repealed the separation requirement. You can now file for a divorce in D.C. whether you have separated from your spouse or not.

You can file your divorce complaint with the Superior Court Family Court Operations Division of the District of Columbia.

Types of Divorce in the District of Columbia

There are two types of divorce in D.C.—contested and uncontested. An uncontested divorce occurs when both spouses agree to the divorce terms. They both agree that divorce is best.

According to the D.C. courts, to qualify for an uncontested divorce, the couple must agree on all matters, including:

  • Property division
  • Child custody (physical custody and legal custody)
  • Childcare for minor children
  • Parenting plan with visitation
  • Child support
  • Alimony
  • Health insurance

With a contested divorce, the parties don’t agree on divorce terms. Even with the help of their divorce attorneys, they can’t negotiate a marital settlement agreement.

The judge will order a trial in divorce cases where the spouses can’t agree on basic divorce terms. Trials can be expensive and time-consuming. Plus, it’s not always good to turn the decision-making over to a judge.

If you work to resolve divorce issues out of court, you’ll often have a better chance of negotiating a fair distribution of property, alimony, and child custody. Courts will also encourage parties to use mediation services to settle the case before the trial date.

No-Fault Divorce and Fault-Based Divorce

Every state recognizes a no-fault divorce. Washington, D.C., is no different. With a no-fault divorce, the parties don’t blame each other for the breakdown of the marriage. They need only cite irreconcilable differences or make a no-fault claim consistent with the language of the divorce statute.

With a fault-based divorce, one party cites specific reasons for wanting to end the marriage. Some common reasons petitioners cite include adultery, imprisonment, and cruel treatment. The D.C. code doesn’t require you to do this.

Grounds for Divorce in D.C.

Unlike many other states, the District of Columbia does not require the parties to prove traditional grounds for divorce. A party need only state that they no longer wish to remain married.

Child Custody and Child Support

In most divorce cases, the parents work out child custody through their D.C. divorce lawyers. Often, one party becomes the custodial parent. They have physical custody of the children. The other parent may share joint legal custody and have visitation with the kids.

If you can’t agree on child custody, the judge will make that determination based on the best interests of the child.

You and your spouse can decide on child support as well. If you can’t agree on this, the judge will calculate support using the child support guidelines. Typically, the judge’s clerk will enter the parties’ financial information into a software program. The program will use pre-set formulas to determine child support based on the parties' incomes, the number of children each spouse supports, and other factors.

Alimony and Spousal Support in D.C.

The District of Columbia refers to spousal support as alimony. In most divorce cases, the lower-earning spouse can demand alimony from their soon-to-be ex-spouse.

D.C. recognizes three types of alimony:

  • Temporary (pendente lite): Sometimes, your divorce lawyer can convince the judge that you deserve alimony throughout the divorce proceedings. Temporary alimony ends when the divorce becomes final.

  • Short-term (rehabilitative): Judges order this alimony to help the lower-earning spouse become self-supporting. The court will define an end date for this type of support.

  • Permanent: It’s rare for a judge to order permanent alimony. They reserve this type of support for cases where one spouse can’t work due to age, disability, or employability.

Equitable Distribution and Marital Property

Divorcing couples must divide their marital assets and debts. In community property states, courts divide these assets equally. This isn’t what happens in D.C.

The D.C. code calls for equitable distribution of marital property and debts. Usually, the divorcing couple’s attorneys negotiate the property and debt division. If they can’t achieve this, the family court judge will divide the assets and debts as they see fit.

Property subject to equitable distribution includes:

  • Real estate
  • Personal property (cars, jewelry, art, etc.)
  • Retirement accounts
  • Pensions
  • Bank accounts
  • Timeshares
  • Pets

The courts will rarely divide your marital assets in half. It’s typically not feasible.

You won’t have to divide separate property. Separate property refers to assets you brought into the marriage. It also includes such things as gifts and inheritances as well.

Final Divorce Decree and Your Absolute Divorce Case

Once your divorce is complete, the judge will issue your absolute divorce decree. Once you have your final divorce judgment, your marital settlement agreement will become a court order, enforceable by both parties.

Relevant D.C. Laws

District of Columbia Code

Division II, Judiciary and Judicial Procedure, Title 16, Chapter 9, Section 16-901, et seq.

Residency Requirements

One party must be a bona fide resident of D.C. for six months before filing the divorce action.

Waiting Period

A divorce decree becomes final 30 days after docketing with the Clerk unless an appeal is filed. Where parties reach an agreed settlement, they can also agree to waive the right to appeal so that the divorce takes effect upon the filing of the decree. See Section 16-920.

"No Fault" Grounds for Divorce

One or both parties no longer want to be married.

Defenses to a Divorce Filing

As D.C. divorces are no-fault, there are no substantive defenses. There may be procedural defenses related to jurisdiction and venue.

Other Grounds for Divorce


Note: Laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, higher court rulings, ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information, consult an attorney or conduct legal research to verify the status of any laws you are reviewing.

Get Legal Help With Your D.C. Divorce

Even in the best circumstances, divorce can be emotionally and legally challenging. Whether you've decided to get divorced or have been served with divorce papers, it helps to understand the laws in your jurisdiction.

An experienced divorce lawyer will help explain the process and work to achieve the best possible outcome. You can get started today by having a D.C.-area divorce lawyer evaluate your situation.

District of Columbia Divorce Laws: Related Resources

You can find more information about legal separation and divorce at FindLaw. Divorce is a major decision, and the legal process can be long and complicated. For specific questions, we recommend speaking with a local divorce lawyer.

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