Washington DC Divorce Laws and Resources

By WomansDivorce staff

While the overall divorce rate in the United States has decreased, Washington D.C. has the highest divorce rate in the country (1). While there are many theories as to why DC has such a high rate of divorce, there are few definitive answers. While first marriages appear to be in crisis, second and third marriages have an even more dismal chance of success.    

Marriages end over a variety of issues, however the most common issues include: personal changes by one or both partners, money issues, infidelity, lack of communication and stress. Divorce is never an easy issue, no matter where you happen to live. 

Whether you're just considering getting a divorce in Washington, DC or you're in the middle of the legal process, we've got you covered. We offer the information you need to know for getting a divorce or legal separation, as well as divorce recovery services and help for victims of domestic abuse. You can look up divorce and financial professionals to help you with the legal process, access divorce papers and online options for divorce, plus review the laws on divorce for the District of Columbia. Keep reading to get the help you need. 

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DC Divorce Laws 

Based on District of Columbia Official Code - Title 16

Residency Requirements for Divorce in Washington D.C. 

The spouse who begins the divorce proceedings is known as the plaintiff, while the other spouse is known as the defendant. To be eligible to file for divorce, three requirements must be met and one of those is residency. (The other two are proof of marriage and grounds for divorce). You must be able to show that either you or your spouse has lived in Washington D.C. continuously for at least six months when you file your divorce complaint. 

For those who are members of the armed forces, one spouse must have resided in D.C. for a continuous period of six months during the period of military service. To satisfy the proof of marriage requirement, you must show, via an original or certified copy of your marriage certificate, that there is a valid marriage to be dissolved. Common law marriages must be proven through the testimony of friends and family.

Contested or Uncontested? 

Divorces are either contested or uncontested. An uncontested divorce means that both parties agree about the divorce, and agree about asset division, spousal support, and issues related to the children. A contested divorce means there are areas of disagreement. In truth, a large portion of those divorces which begin as uncontested can quickly turn contested—or even hotly contested. Even when a couple agrees there should be a divorce issues related to who will get what—and who will have primary custody of the children—can turn the divorce ugly very quickly. 

Grounds for Divorce in Washington D.C. 

Many states have shifted to no-fault divorce. This means you are not required to name a “fault” or a reason for the divorce. There are currently 17 states plus DC which allow a couple to only file for divorce on no-fault grounds. No-fault divorces simply state “irreconcilable differences,” as the reason for the divorce.   

In Washington D.C., you must show that you and your spouse have been separated for a specific length of time—six months “mutual and voluntary separation.” This means you and your spouse have agreed to separate and live apart without cohabitation for at least six months prior to filing for divorce. The alternative to this requirement is that you and your spouse have been living separately and apart, even if there was no agreement to separate. 

Is Legal Separation Recognized in Washington D.C.? 

Although spouses must live apart prior to filing for divorce in D.C., a legal separation is not a requirement. Some people, however, will choose a legal separation rather than a divorce for a number of reasons, including financial issues and religious beliefs. When a divorce is over, the couple is no longer married, but when a legal separation is over, the parties remain married.   

Both a legal separation and a divorce must answer important questions regarding asset division, child custody, child support and spousal support. A legal separation may turn into a divorce, or the couple may reconcile after petitioning the court to remove the legal separation decree and resume their marriage. A separation agreement is signed by both spouses, and is legally binding. This document can be extremely complex and detailed, or fairly simple. 

Discharge or Conversion of a Legal Separation Decree 

If you have a Final Legal Separation Order, then decide you want to reconcile with your spouse, your attorney will attempt to vacate or cancel the final legal separation order, however these orders are only vacated in certain cases.   

If you decide to divorce before your legal separation has been finalized, you will then file a Petition for Divorce to start the divorce proceedings. If you have a Final Legal Separation Order, then you can convert this order into a Final Divorce Order by waiting at least six months after the entry of your decree of legal separation.   

A motion must be brought before the court to convert the legal separation to a divorce, then a motion for hearing must be scheduled. The other party must be given notice of the hearing, and proof of that notice must be brought to the hearing. Even if both parties are not in agreement to divorce, the court will still grant a motion to convert a legal separation to a divorce.   

Division of Assets and Debts 

Regarding the division of assets and debts during a divorce, states operate under either community property law or equitable division law. Under community property law, the assets and debts of the couple are divided right down the middle regardless of extenuating circumstances. Equitable division laws divide assets and debts equitably, but not necessarily 50/50. Washington DC operates under equitable division, and will take all relevant factors into account when determining how to divide property and debts. These relevant factors include: 

  • The health status and age of each spouse; 
  • The assets of each spouse; 
  • The sources of income for each spouse; 
  • The occupation of each spouse; 
  • The skills and employability of each spouse; 
  • The debts of each spouse; 
  • The specific needs of each spouse; 
  • The obligations from prior marriages or obligations for other children of each spouse; 
  • The contributions of each spouse to the family unit, whether as a homemaker, wage earner, or otherwise; 
  • The opportunities of each spouse for future acquisitions of income and assets; 
  • Whether a decrease or increase in income occurred as a result of the marriage; 
  • Any contributions made by one spouse to the education of the other which increased that spouse’s earning ability; 
  • The contributions to the acquisition, preservation or increased value of the marital properties, and 
  • Whether one spouse was involved in the dissipation of marital assets. 

In addition to the above factors, judges in Washington D.C. are allowed to consider the length of the marriage, the child custody arrangements, whether one spouse will receive spousal support, and tax consequences to each spouse from the division of property. Although spousal misconduct is not typically a factor in the division of assets, if one spouse’s behavior significantly contributed to the breakup of the marriage, the judge may consider this fact when assigning assets and debts. If a couple is able to agree on the division of assets, the final result might be more appealing to both than if a judge is required to divide the couple’s assets and debts.  

Alimony in a Washington D.C. Divorce 

Alimony—also known as spousal support—is money paid to one spouse by the other to help financially support that spouse. Alimony may be paid during a separation, during the divorce, or for a period of time after the divorce—or both. The entire concept of alimony was developed at a time when “traditional” marriages were the norm—the wife tended to the house and children, while the husband financially supported the family. Since women had many fewer employment options, husbands were required to continue to support the wife following a divorce.   

While the majority of women now work outside the home, alimony is a method of maintaining economic fairness following a divorce. The courts typically will require the higher wage-earner to assist the lower wage-earner for at least a period of time following the divorce. In Washington D.C., a judge may award temporary alimony during the divorce proceedings, then can award rehabilitative or temporary alimony after the divorce, or permanent alimony. Permanent alimony is usually awarded only in marriages of long duration, or when one spouse has very limited future opportunities for employment due to age or health.   

Temporary or rehabilitative alimony is typically awarded to give some “breathing room” to a lower-earning spouse while they gain education or skills to obtain employment. A judge will take into consideration a number of factors when determining alimony—many of them are the same factors considered in the division of assets. Further, the judge will consider whether one spouse gave up educational or employment opportunities in order to further the career of the other spouse, or gave up those opportunities in order to stay home and raise a family when considering alimony.

What are the Laws Regarding a Name Change after Divorce?

In the District of Columbia, you are allowed to change your name through a divorce or legal separation by filing a name change application in court. Your attorney will file a name change application in court, and you may also be required to appear before the judge and to notify certain third parties. 

What about Child Custody?

Like most states, Washington D.C. uses specific criteria when determining which parent will have primary custody of the children, however the determination will always be based on the best interests of the children. The factors which determine these “best interests,” include the following:

  • The wishes of each parent; 
  • The mental and physical health of all those involved;
  • The relationship between the child or children and each parent;
  • The relationship between the child or children and siblings and extended family members;
  • The geographical proximity of the parents’ homes;
  • The adjustment of the child or children to their community, home and school;
  • The child’s wishes (if the child is old enough and has the capacity to make a reasoned decision), and 
  • The employment demands of each parent. 

The court will begin on the assumption that joint custody is in the best interests of the child or children unless there is a compelling reason to believe otherwise, such as a history of child abuse, child neglect or family violence. Parenting plans must be submitted to the court, and the judge will use these plans in the determination of custody.   

It must be clear which parent will make the major decisions for the children, such as those pertaining to education, religion and health. One parent may be granted primary physical custody, meaning the children will primarily live with that parent, while having liberal visitation with the other parent. Alternatively, the parents may share physical custody, meaning the children will alternate living with each parent in an approximate 50/50 split.  

How is Child Support Calculated? 

Washington D.C. courts believe every child is entitled to be financially supported by both parents and that both parents have a legal duty to do so. Court-ordered child support is typically monetary, but can also include health insurance or assistance with medical expenses. Generally speaking, when a child lives most of the time with one parent, that parent has a right to receive child support from the other parent.   

Even if the child lives with each parent more than a third of the time, one parent may still be required to pay child support, depending on the wage-earning capacity of each parent. Washington D.C. has a child support “calculator” which takes a number of facts into consideration, then returns a specific amount of child support to be paid by one parent to the other.  If court-ordered child support is not paid, there are a number of avenues the receiving parent can take to enforce those orders.

Laws Which Address Same-Sex Marriages 

Washington D.C. now allows same-sex marriages. Typically, those same-sex couples who were married in D.C. but no longer lived in D.C. could not file for divorce in D.C. unless they lived there for six months prior to filing for divorce. That law has been changed for same-sex couples; those who were married in D.C., but now live in a state which does not permit same-sex marriage, can file for divorce in D.C. 

When Will My Annulment or Divorce Be Final? 

Those who live in the D.C. area who want their divorce to move quickly should try to reach mutually acceptable agreements regarding the division of assets and child custody arrangements. An uncontested divorce will typically take two to three months from the date the divorce complaint is filed to the final decree. In sharp contrast, a contested divorce can take 18 months—or longer. An annulment is typically final 30 days after the docketing date, which could be a few days after the hearing.   

It is always advantageous to have an experienced divorce attorney by your side from start to finish for a more positive outcome. Any questions you may have regarding your divorce can be answered by your attorney.   

Uncontested Online Divorce 

Getting divorced is expensive. But if you and your spouse can agree on everything, you can help control the cost by using the 3stepDivorce process. This service allows you to easily prepare all the required divorce papers online by answering various questions relevant to your situation (whether you have children or not). You'll have the opportunity to access support materials on a variety of topics, which is helpful in answering your questions about specific divorce situations, and your final documents will be ready to sign in a court-approved format. Most importantly, they walk you step-by-step through the whole process of filing your own District of Columbia divorce.

Accountants / Financial Planners

Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement - (WISER)
1140 19th Street, N.W. Suite 550
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: 202-393-5452
Fax: 202-393-5890

WISER is an organization which focuses solely on helping women to manage the unique financial challenges they face, especially during the transitional periods following divorce or the death of a spouse. Through various educational and advocacy programs, WISER is dedicated to helping women make informed decisions to improve their long-term financial outlook. Women can learn about pensions, social security issues, divorce, banking and investments, home-ownerships, and more by accessing the easy-to-understand resources on the site.

Divorce Support Groups

Metro-area Divorce Support Group
Offering divorce support for both men and women who are contemplating divorce, currently going through a divorce, or rebuilding their lives after divorce. There are question and answer sessions, video presentations, and discussion about what you are feeling and what to expect.

State-wide divorce groups

Domestic Violence Information

Domestic Violence Shelter/Housing & Resources in DC 

Coalition Against Domestic Abuse - DC Chapter