How to File a Divorce in the District of Columbia

How to File a Divorce in the District of Columbia

by Edward A. Haman, Esq., July 2015

In the District of Columbia, as elsewhere in the United States, a divorce for any married couple will accomplish two things: (1) severing the marital relationship, and (2) dividing assets and debts. If they have been married for a significant length of time and one of them will be unable to be self-supporting after the divorce, the issue of alimony may arise. If there are minor children, they will also need to resolve issues of child custody, visitation, and support.

Basic Requirements

Residency. In order to file for divorce in D.C., either you or your spouse must be a resident of the District for at least six months before filing.

Separation Period. Before filing for divorce, one of the following situations must exist: you and your spouse have been “mutually and voluntarily” living separately for at least six months, or (2) you and your spouse have been living separately for one year (if not mutual). You and your spouse must not have cohabited at any time during the separation period. If you separate, live together again (even for a day), and separate again, the separation period starts over.


You begin the procedure by filing a Complaint for Divorce in Superior Court. In the most simple situation, an uncontested divorce, you and your spouse will reach an agreement on property division, alimony (if it is to be paid), and child custody and support. In such a case, you, and possibly your spouse, will be required to attend a court hearing. The judge will ask some questions, to be sure you understand and agree to everything, and will enter a Final Decree of Divorce. If you get into a dispute, and have a contested divorce, the hearing is more complicated.

Grounds for Divorce

Grounds are legally recognized reasons to get a divorce, severing the marital relationship. D.C., like most states, has what are commonly called no-fault grounds for divorce. Unlike most states, the District has no fault-based grounds.

For a no-fault divorce in the District of Columbia you need to state in the Complaint that “the parties have mutually and voluntarily lived separate and apart without cohabitation for a period of at least six months.” If your separation is not mutual and voluntary, you will need to state that “the parties have lived separate and apart without cohabitation for a period of at least one year.”

Property Division in the District of Columbia

Your property and debts must be divided. You and your spouse may agree on this. If the judge must decide the matter, D.C. law allows each party to keep his or her sole property, which is:

  • property acquired before marriage,
  • property acquired by gift or inheritance, or
  • property acquired in exchange for sole property, and
  • any increased value of sole property.

The marital property is divided considering the following factors:

  • the length of marriage,
  • each party’s age, health, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, assets, debts, and needs,
  • child custody provisions,
  • whether distribution is in lieu of, or in addition to, alimony,
  • any child support obligations from prior marriages,
  • each party’s opportunity for future acquisition of assets and income,
  • each party’s contribution to the family unit as homemaker or otherwise,
  • each party’s contribution to the other’s education,
  • each party’s increase or decrease in income as  a result of the marriage,
  • each party’s contribution to the acquisition, preservation, appreciation, dissipation, or depreciation in value of marital assets, taxability of assets, and whether the asset was acquired or the debt incurred after separation,
  • the effects of taxation on assets subject to distribution,
  • the circumstances contributing to estrangement, and
  • any other relevant factor.

Alimony in the District of Columbia

If the parties do have agree to alimony, the District of Columbia alimony law provides that the court may determine whether to award alimony, and the amount and duration, based upon the following factors:

  • the ability of the party seeking alimony to be wholly or partly self-supporting,
  • the time necessary for the party seeking alimony to gain sufficient education or training to secure suitable employment,
  • the standard of living established during the marriage,
  • the length of the marriage,
  • the circumstances contributing to the dissolution (i.e., fault),
  • each party’s age, physical, and mental condition,
  • the ability of the party paying alimony to meet his or her needs,
  • the financial needs and resources of each party,
  • any other relevant factor.       

Child Custody in the District of Columbia

If you and your spouse have any minor children, there will have to be a custody determination. Traditionally, one parent was awarded custody, and the other was given visitation rights. The children lived most of the time with the custodial parent, who made the day-to-day decisions regarding the children. The non-custodial parent was allotted certain times to have visitation with the children. Both parents were involved in major decisions regarding the children, such as those regarding their medical care. The modern trend is to try to keep both parents active in the lives of their children, which has led to the concept of joint custody. It all still comes down to figuring out how the children’s time will be divided between the parents, and how decisions will be made.

District of Columbia custody law says that custody is to be determined by the best interests of the child, considering the following factors:

  • the wishes of the child,
  • the wishes of the parties,
  • the relationship between the child and parents, siblings, and other significant persons,
  • the child’s adjustment to home, school, and community,
  •  the mental and physical health of all persons involved,
  • any evidence of an “intrafamily offense” (domestic violence),
  • the parents’ capacity to cooperate in decisions affecting the child’s welfare,
  • 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 geographic proximity of the parents’ homes,
  • the demands of parental employment,
  • the age and number of children,
  • the sincerity of each parent’s request,
  • each parent’s ability to financially support a joint custody arrangement,
  • any impact on the Territory Assistance for Needy Families, Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibilities, and medical assistance, and
  • the benefits to the parents.

Child Support in the District of Columbia

The District of Columbia child support guidelines, considering the needs of the child, and each parent’s ability to pay may be found on the District of Columbia's government website.

Name Change

The wife’s birth name or her name before the marriage may be restored on her request.

If you and your spouse agree on the major issues, an uncontested divorce may be right for you. Otherwise, you can talk to an attorney to get advice or help filing for divorce with the LegalZoom personal legal plan.