A Summary of Washington DC Divorce Laws

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Grounds for Divorce Under Washington DC Divorce Laws

The first step in every divorce case is the grounds – or legal reasons – for breaking up the marriage. The District of Columbia is a no-fault jurisdiction. This means that it only takes one person to break up a marriage.

There are two types of divorces and two acceptable grounds for divorce under Washington DC divorce laws.

In an uncontested divorce, you both agree that the marriage is over. In that case, you and your spouse must live separate and apart without cohabitation for a period of six months prior to the filing of the petition for divorce. This is the first grounds.

The second type of divorce is called a contested divorce and it’s for couples whose separation was not a completely mutual decision. The grounds for a contested divorce are that you and your spouse have been living separate and apart without cohabitation for a period of one year prior to filing.

Just to clarify, “living separate and apart” does not require one of you to leave the home you shared (you may live in the same home as long as you do not share a bed or food), but “cohabitation” means you do share a home.

Residency Requirements

 At least one of the parties must be a legal resident of the District of Columbia  for six months prior to filing a complaint for divorce.

Name of Court and Title of Action/Parties

The spouse who files the action for divorce is called the Plaintiff, while the other spouse is known as the Defendant. The action that starts the process is called a Complaint for Divorce. This action is filed in the Superior Court – Family Division. The court order that releases you from the institution of marriage is called the Final Decree of Divorce.

Legal Separation

Legal separation is an option for DC residents who wish to avoid a divorce for personal reasons including religious beliefs. There are four grounds for a legal separation.

The first two are very similar to the grounds for divorce (no-fault grounds).

And the last set includes fault grounds. The grounds for a legal separation are:

  • You are currently living separate and apart without cohabitation based on a mutual decision to do so
  • You have been living separate and apart without cohabitation for a period of one year prior to the filing of the action (for couples who are not in complete agreement about the separation)
  • Adultery committed by either spouse
  • Either spouse acting cruelly toward the other

A legal separation may be expanded to an absolute divorce upon request by one spouse as long as said spouse is able to prove that there has been no reconciliation made during the separation and that you have continued to live separate and apart for a period of one year after the decree of separation was issued.


There are two types of alimony that may be awarded in the District of Columbia:

  1. Rehabilitative Alimony – this is temporary support that allows the receiving spouse time to obtain the necessary skills and/or training required to gain sufficient employment in order to support him or herself.
  2. Indefinite Alimony – this is permanent support, which ends when one spouse dies.

The court will determine the amount and type of alimony after consideration of several factors including:

  • Financial needs and resources of each spouse
  • Ability of the person seeking alimony to be wholly or partly self-supporting
  • Time necessary for the person seeking alimony to gain sufficient education or training to enable that spouse to secure suitable employment
  • Standard of living that the couple established during their marriage
  • Duration of the marriage
  • Circumstances leading to the breakup of the marriage
  • Age of each spouse
  • Physical and mental condition of each spouse
  • Ability of paying spouse to meet his or her needs while paying alimony
  • Any other relevant factors

Distribution of Property

The District of Columbia is an equitable distribution jurisdiction. Equitable is not the same thing as equal, but instead refers to what is fair. This means that any shared property is divided between the spouses in a manner that the court deems just and reasonable after first setting aside each spouse’s separate property.

The court will consider the following factors to determine fair distribution of property:

  • The duration of the marriage
  • Any prior marriage of either party
  • The age, health, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, assets, debts, and needs of each of the parties
  • Provisions for the custody of minor children
  • Whether the distribution is in lieu of, or in addition to, maintenance
  • The opportunity of each party for future acquisition of assets and income
  • Each party’s contribution to the acquisition, preservation, appreciation, dissipation or depreciation of the assets subject to distribution
  • Any other factors the court deems relevant

Child Custody

Depending on the circumstances, the court may choose to award sole custody to one parent or joint custody to both. Joint custody is often the preferred choice (unless there is a history of abuse or neglect). Children need stability and support from both parents. The best thing you can do for your kids is to work together with your ex to provide the best possible environment for them – one in which they feel loved and accepted with as little emotional trauma as possible – given the circumstances.

Ultimately, it is up to the court to decide the best option for your kids. When making this decision, the court will consider several factors, including:

  • The wishes of the child
  • The wishes of the child’s parents and the sincerity of each parent’s request
  • The interaction and interrelationship of the child with parents, siblings and any other person
  • The child’s adjustment to his home, school and community, and the potential disruption of the child’s social and school life
  • The mental and physical health of all parties
  • The capacity of the parents to communicate and reach shared decisions regarding the child’s welfare
  • The willingness of the parents to share custody
  • The prior involvement of each parent in the child’s life
  • The geographic proximity of the parental homes as it relates to the child’s residential schedule
  • The demands of parental employment
  • The age and number of children
  • Any other factor the court deems reasonable

The court may order each of you to submit a parenting plan detailing your proposals for tackling issues such as the child’s residence, support, visitation, education, medical and dental care, among others. 

If you are unable to agree on these matters, the court may take further action to alleviate any disputes and can order you and your spouse to attend parenting classes.

Child Support

The District of Columbia has established child support guidelines, which establish a presumptively correct amount of child support to be paid. 

The guidelines take into consideration the existence of any prior order of child support a party may be paying, and the difference in cost to raise children of different ages.  Deviation from these guidelines may be made if the court finds that following the guidelines would not be in the best interest of the child.

If the parties present the court with an agreement containing provisions for child support, that agreement shall be examined and compared to the child support guidelines to determine if that agreement is fair and just. 

The court will examine each parent’s situation to ensure that the person is aware of the presumptively correct amount contained in the guidelines and that consent for the deviation from the guidelines was informed. 

Name Change

The spouse who changed his/her name for the marriage may request to return to their former or maiden name. The court may grant this change in the final decree.


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