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Legal Information: District of Columbia

District of Columbia Divorce

Laws current as of
April 5, 2024

This page has basic information about divorce in Washington, D.C. You will find more information about divorce, including the risks of taking your children out of state while a divorce is pending, on our general Divorce page. To watch brief videos about divorce in Spanish with English sub-titles, go to our Videos page. Lastly, learn more about the court process on our Preparing for Court – By Yourself page.

What are the residency requirements to file for divorce in D.C.?

To file for divorce in D.C., you or your spouse must have been a resident of D.C. for at least six months before the filing for the divorce.1

A member of the armed forces will be considered a resident of D.C. if s/he resides in D.C. continuously for six months during his/her military service.2

1 D.C. Code § 16-902(a)
2 D.C. Code § 16-902(e)

What are the grounds for divorce in D.C.?

Grounds are legally acceptable reasons for a divorce. The judge can grant you a divorce if either spouse claims that they no longer want to be married.1

1 D.C. Code § 16-904(a)

Can I get alimony?

Alimony is financial support paid by one spouse to another and can be awarded when a divorce, legal separation, or termination of a domestic partnership is granted.1 If you request alimony and the judge decides to award it in your case, the order can be for either an indefinite period of time, or s/he can order a time-limited award.2

If the judge decides to grant you alimony, the judge will consider certain factors to determine a fair amount to order. These factors include, but are not limited to:

  • your ability to support yourself;
  • how long it will take you to gain enough education or training so you can find suitable employment;
  • the standard of living that was established during the marriage/domestic partnership, while also taking into consideration that there will now be two households to financially support;
  • the length of the marriage/domestic partnership;
  • the circumstances that led to the end of the marriage/domestic partnership, including the history of physical, emotional, or financial abuse by one spouse against the other;
  • the age of you and your spouse;
  • the physical and mental health of you and your spouse;
  • the ability of your spouse to support himself/herself while also supporting you;
  • the financial needs and resources of you and your spouse, such as:
    • income, including income from assets, property from the marriage/domestic partnership, and individual property;
    • potential income from assets;
    • any previous award of child support in your case;
    • financial obligations of each spouse;
    • the right of you or your spouse to receive retirement benefits; and
    • the taxability of income.3

1 D.C. Code § 16-913(a)
2 D.C. Code § 16-913(b)
3 D.C. Code § 16-913(d)

What factors will a judge consider when dividing marital property and debts?

The judge will split the marital assets and debts using a legal theory called “equitable distribution.” An “asset” is something valuable like a home, other property, stocks, money, etc. “Equitable distribution” means that the judge will divide what the couple owns and owes in a way that is fair, reasonable, and just (“equitable”). However, it won’t necessarily be divided equally between the spouses.

When deciding how to do the equitable distribution, the judge will consider many factors, including:

  • how long the spouses have been married;
  • the spouses’ ages, health, and jobs;
  • how much money each spouse makes and where their income comes from;
  • the spouses’ vocational skills and how easily they can get a job (“employability”);
  • what each spouse owns, owes, and needs;
  • if there are minor children, who has custody;
  • what led to the breakdown of the marriage, including any physical, emotional, or financial abuse;
  • whether the equitable distribution is instead of, or in addition to, alimony;
  • if either spouse has to support a former spouse or domestic partner or children from a past relationship;
  • how likely each spouse is to get (“acquire”) assets and income in the future;
  • how each spouse contributed to the family unit, as a homemaker or otherwise;
  • if either spouse helped the other spouse get an education that enhanced his/her earning ability;
  • if either spouse’s income increased or decreased because of the marriage and homemaking or child care duties;
  • how each spouse contributed to the marital assets by looking at how they each helped get (“acquire”), keep (“preserve”), increase the value of (“appreciate”), waste (“dissipate”), or lower the value of (“depreciate”) the assets being divided;
  • “taxability” of the assets - in other words, whether taxes will be charged on the assets being divided and how this will affect their value; and
  • if either spouse got (“acquired”) an asset or debt, whether that happened before or after they separated.1 

In addition, if either spouse requests it, the judge can decide ownership of a pet. The judge will consider the pet’s best interests and then give sole ownership to one spouse or joint ownership to both spouses.2

1 D.C. Code § 16-910(a)(2)
2 D.C. Code § 16-910(a)(3)(b)

What are the basic steps for filing for divorce?

While divorce laws vary by state, here are the basic steps that a person may have to follow to obtain a divorce:

  • First, you or your spouse must meet the residency requirements of the state you want to file in.
  • Second, you must have “grounds” (a legally acceptable reason) to end your marriage.
  • Third, you must file the appropriate divorce papers and have copies sent to your spouse. (To learn more about filing a summons, preparing a petition, and service of process, go to the Starting the Court Case page in our Preparing for Court - By Yourself section.) For the exact rules for serving the papers, contact your local courthouse or an attorney.   
  • Fourth, if your spouse disagrees with anything in the divorce papers, then s/he will have the opportunity to file papers telling her/his side.  In his/her response, the other party may express his/her opinion challenging the divorce, asking that it be granted under different grounds or letting the judge know that s/he agrees to the divorce.  If your spouse contests the divorce, then you may have a series of court appearances to sort the issues out.  Also, if a certain period of time passes and your spouse does not sign the papers or file any papers of his/her own, you may be able to proceed with the divorce as an uncontested divorce anyway.  (Speak to a lawyer in your state about how long you have to wait to see if your spouse answers before you can continue with the divorce.)
  • Fifth, if there are property, assets, a pension, debts, or anything else that you need divided, or if you need financial support from your spouse, then these issues may have to be dealt with during the divorce or else you may lose your chance to deal with these issues.  The issues may be worked out during settlement negotiations and incorporated into the divorce decree or in a series of court hearings during the divorce.  Custody and child support may also be decided as part of your divorce.

You can find more information about service of process in our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section, in the question called What is service of process and how do I accomplish it?

Where do I find the court forms that I need?

The District of Columbia Bar links to court forms for those seeking divorce, separation, or annulment.

Where can I find additional information about divorce on WomensLaw.org?

You will find more information about divorce, including the risks of taking your children out of state while a divorce is pending, on our general Divorce page. To watch brief videos about divorce in Spanish with English sub-titles, go to our Videos page. Lastly, learn more about the court process on our Preparing for Court – By Yourself page.