WomensLaw serves and supports all survivors, no matter their sex or gender.

Legal Information: District of Columbia

District of Columbia Custody

Laws current as of April 5, 2024

What is legal custody?

Legal custody refers to which parent has the right and responsibility to make all of the major decisions affecting the child’s life, regarding issues such as healthcare and education. Legal custody also covers the right to access your child’s educational, medical, psychological, dental, or other records, and the right to speak with/get obtain information from school officials, health care providers, counselors, or other professionals who interact with the child.1

When one parent has sole legal custody, s/he has the right to make those decisions alone. When parents have joint legal custody, the parents share the decision-making. The decision-making isn’t necessarily shared equally - a judge can give one parent power to make certain decisions by herself/himself while both parents have equal rights and responsibilities for other decisions.2

1 D.C. Code § 16-914(a)(1)(B)
2 D.C. Code § 16-914(d)(2)

What is physical custody?

Physical custody refers to a child’s living arrangements.1

Sole physical custody is when the child lives primarily with only one parent on a day-to-day basis. Joint physical custody is when there is a division of time with the child by both parents, but it does not necessarily mean the child spends equal amounts of time with each parent. The judge may also order a specific visitation schedule.

1 D.C. Code § 16-914(a)(1)(B)

What is joint custody?

Joint custody is the term used to describe a situation where parents have both joint physical custody and joint legal custody.  In an action for custody, an award of joint custody is favored in D.C.  However, if a judge determines that domestic violence, child abuse, neglect, or parental kidnapping has occurred, joint custody is no longer preferred.  Instead, the judge should presume that joint custody is not in the best interest of the child (but the abusive parent can try to present evidence to change the judge’s mind).1  If the judge does grant the abusive parent custody (or visitation), the judge must explain his/her reason for doing so in a written statement. 

In addition, the law says that the judge should only award visitation to an abusive parent if the judge finds that the child and the non-abusive parent can adequately be protected from the abusive parent.2  See Can a parent who committed violence get custody or visitation? to read more.   

1 D.C. Code § 16-914(a)(2)
2 D.C. Code § 16-914(a-1)

What is a guardian ad litem?

A guardian ad litem is an attorney who the judge appoints to represent the child’s best interest during the court case. The guardian ad litem is not there to represent either you or the other parent but to try to represent what s/he thinks is in the child’s best interest.

In addition to a guardian ad litem, or instead of one, the judge can appoint an attorney for the child whenever s/he thinks that it is in the best interest of the child and that the case will be better facilitated by appointing a private attorney to represent the child in a custody case.1

1 D.C. Code § 16-914(g)

What is mediation?

Mediation is when a third party, called a mediator, tries to help the parents agree on a custody arrangement and visitation schedule instead of having the judge make the decision at trial.

Mediation may be used at the beginning stages of a custody case and/or it may be included in the parenting plan as a way to resolve disagreements between the parents once the custody case is over.1

If you are a survivor of domestic violence, mediation may not be appropriate. The abuser may use mediation as an opportunity for further control and abuse, and s/he may intimidate you into agreeing to something that you do not want. You may want to let the judge know that you are a victim of domestic violence and that you do not want to go through mediation. You can also let the mediator know about any domestic violence if your case is assigned to mediation.

If you do end up having to go to mediation, a lawyer or domestic violence advocate may be able to help you prepare for mediation. To find a lawyer or advocate in your area please visit our DC Places that Help page.

1 D.C. Code § 16-914(c)(11)