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Legal Information: District of Columbia


Laws current as of April 5, 2024

Can I file for custody in D.C.?

You can only file for custody in D.C. if:

  • D.C. is your child’s “home state” when you file for child custody;
  • D.C. was your child’s “home state” within 6 months before you filed for child custody, even if the child doesn’t live in D.C. any longer, as long as one of the child’s parents (or a person acting as a parent) still lives in D.C;
  • the court in the state where the child is living says that they do not have jurisdiction (power) over the case because D.C. is the more appropriate place to deal with the issue of custody and all of the following are true:
    • the child and her/his parent (or a person acting like a parent) have a significant connection to D.C.;
    • there is a lot of evidence in D.C. about the child’s care, protection, training, and personal relationships; or
  • there is another state’s court that legally has jurisdiction but they choose to let D.C. have jurisdiction over the case because D.C. is the more appropriate place to determine custody.1

1 D.C. Code § 16-4602.01

What are the steps for filing for custody?

The specific steps for filing for custody vary, depending on your particular situation.

Usually, if you and the other parent are going through a divorce, you can request custody as part of the divorce complaint.  Custody will be decided during the divorce either through settlement negotiations between the parents, or if the parents can’t agree, by the judge at a hearing if you or the other parent asks the judge to make a decision.

If you and the other parent were never married or you are currently married but you aren’t getting a divorce, either parent can petition (ask) the court for custody.  To file for custody, you will need to draft (write) paperwork asking the court for custody.  You will then need to turn in that paperwork to the court, along with money to pay a filing fee.  If you cannot afford the filing fee, you may be able to request a fee waiver.  Once you have turned in your paperwork and your filing fee (or fee waiver if eligible), you may be assigned a date to:

  • return to court for a hearing in front of a judge;
  • go to mediation with the other parent; or
  • take other steps in your custody case, such as attending a parenting education course that is offered by the court.

Custody matters are often complicated.  If you can get a lawyer to draft the paperwork for you, represent you, and/or give you legal advice, it might help to make sure your legal rights are protected.  You will find a list of legal resources on our DC Finding a Lawyer page.

How will a judge make a decision about custody?

Custody is determined according to what the judge considers to be in the child’s best interest. The judge will consider all relevant factors, including, but not limited to:

  • the child’s preference for who s/he wants to live with;
  • the wishes of the child’s parent(s);
  • the relationship the child has with his/her parents, siblings or any other persons involved;
  • the child’s adjustment to his/her home, school, and community life;
  • the mental and physical health of all individuals involved;
  • any evidence of domestic or family violence;
  • the ability of the parents to communicate and reach shared decisions affecting the child;
  • 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;
  • how close the parents live from one another (for example, this would come into play if the judge were deciding whether having the kids go back and forth between the two homes would be reasonable);
  • the demands of parental employment;
  • the age and number of children;
  • the sincerity of each parent’s request;
  • the parent’s ability to financially support a joint custody arrangement;
  • the impact on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibilities, and medical assistance; and
  • the benefit to the parents.1

The court may also order each parent to submit a detailed parenting plan, outlining each parent’s position for a proposed custody/visitation schedule, and allocation (division) of parental rights and responsibilities that would be in the best interest of the child.2 The judge will consider these parenting plans when evaluating the factors listed above and when making the custody decision.3

1 D.C. Code § 16-914(a)(3)
2 D.C. Code § 16-914(a-3)(2)(c)
3 D.C. Code § 16-914 (a-3)(d)(1)

Should I start a court case to ask for supervised visits?

If you are not comfortable with the abuser being alone with your child, you might be thinking about asking the judge to order that visits with your child be supervised.  If you are already in court because the abuser filed for visitation or custody, you may not have much to lose by asking that the visits be supervised if you can present a valid reason for your request, although this may depend on your situation.

However, if there is no current court case, please get legal advice before you start a court case to ask for supervised visits.  We strongly recommend that you talk to an attorney who specializes in custody matters to find out what you would have to prove to get the visits supervised and how long supervised visits would last, based on the facts of your case.

In the majority of cases, supervised visits are only a temporary measure.  Although the exact visitation order will vary by state, county, or judge, the judge might order a professional to observe the other parent on a certain amount of visits or the visits might be supervised by a relative for a certain amount of time – and if there are no obvious problems, the visits may likely become unsupervised.  Oftentimes, at the end of a case, the other parent ends up with more frequent and/ or longer visits than s/he had before you went into court or even some form of custody.

In some cases, to protect your child from immediate danger by the abuser, starting a case to ask for custody and supervised visits is appropriate.  To find out what may be best in your situation, please go to DC Finding a Lawyer to seek out legal advice.