Deciding which parent should have primary physical custody of a child or how parents should share custody equally is often the most important and emotional issue in family court. Both parents presumably have joint custody, but either parent can file a complaint for sole custody and ask for sole legal custody, sole physical custody, or both. En Español.

There are two kinds of child custody in Washington DC. There is physical and legal custody.

Physical custody generally means who the child is actually, physically with at any given time. It is possible, however, that a parent with physical custody may not be exercising their rights to spend time with the child at a particular moment, like a parent who delegates their physical custody rights to a child’s school or other caregivers, for example.

Legal custody involves a parent’s right to make major or important decisions about their child’s education, religious upbringing, relocation, and medical or mental health needs. Examples include whether to medicate a child with ADHD, whether a child needs play therapy, whether a child should be raised in one parent’s religion or culture, whether a child will go to a public or private school and which one, and whether a child participates in particular after-school activities, clubs, or sports.

Regardless of what either parent may want in terms of custody, family law judges must always make decisions in the best interests of the child. A Washington DC child custody lawyer could help a parent who is seeking to retain custody of their children. A family law attorney from our firm could also evaluate your current child custody arrangement and request alterations or modifications of an order that no longer meets your or your children’s needs.

What is the Purpose of Child Custody Law?

The purpose of child custody law is making a decision about parenting rights in the best interest of the child. Parents may, of course, have differing opinions about what arrangement is in their child’s best interest, such as who the child primarily lives with or which parent is going to be making the major decisions.

For example, if parents live in different jurisdictions and have access to different schools, they must decide which school their child will attend. If the parents are unable to make those decisions together, a judge in the appropriate jurisdiction will make the decision in the child’s best interests. Consulting a DC attorney is crucial because sometimes even figuring out whether a family law judge should hear the case can present a complex legal argument.

Child-Sharing Arrangements in Washington DC

DC child custody laws may differ from surrounding jurisdictions. For example, in DC, there is a presumption of joint custody, which can involve 50/50 parenting time. In another jurisdiction, a court may favor the child’s non-working parent or their mother, especially in cases involving a nursing baby. Moreover, interpreting what is in the best interest of the child largely depends on the presiding judge. An experienced DC child custody attorney who knows the judge in your particular case can make the best arguments for you and your child. District of Columbia Code §16-914 outlines several factors that a judge may consider on a case-by-case basis to make the decision about what is in your child’s best interest.


Physical custody generally means where a child lives or with whom a they are spending time. In DC, there is a presumption of shared custody, even for infants and very young children. There are definitive access schedules and ways to share physical custody that are developmentally appropriate and that ease the transition between two households for young children.

A common custody arrangement for younger children is the 2-2-3 schedule, which places a child with one parent for two days of the week and then with the other for the subsequent two days. Then, the parents alternate having custody on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. This parenting time schedule allows both parents to spend every other weekend with their child and share custody on midweek or on school days as well.


As long as both parents want to spend as much time with their child as possible, local courts typically prefer to grant some version of joint physical custody where a child spends time in both parents’ homes. In cases involving abuse, neglect, or domestic violence, however, the presumption of joint custody shifts, and a court has more discretion to grant sole custody of a child to place them in the non-abusive parent’s home in order to protect both the children’s and the survivor’s safety.

There are some nuances to child custody law in DC that could impact the type of custody awarded. While there is a presumption of joint custody, it is rebuttable. For instance, if one parent committed an intrafamily offense or some form of domestic violence against the other parent, it then is presumed that the person who committed the offense will not have custody. While the parent who committed an intrafamily offense or an act of domestic violence may have to show how the other parent and the child will be protected if the offensive parent is awarded visitation rights, but that burden is often easily overcome.

A parent who abuses, neglects, or abandons their child is unlikely to receive joint custody rights, but even that rebuttable presumption can be overcome. Even if a parent is found to have committed an act of domestic violence or child abuse or neglect, that does not necessarily mean that they will not be awarded joint custody. Whether you are found to have committed an act of abuse or you are a survivor of abuse, a child custody lawyer in DC with extensive experience in domestic violence can make the best argument to help you obtain the custody arrangement you think is best for your child.


Legal custody involves the right to make decisions concerning a child’s upbringing. According to DC law, legal custody gives a parent the right to make decisions about their children’s:

  • Medical and health needs, including mental health
  • Education
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Religious denomination

As with physical custody, the courts prefer to award joint legal custody of a child. Domestic violence, substance abuse, or abuse or neglect of a child may compel a judge to grant sole legal custody to one parent instead of joint custody. A Washington DC attorney could help a parent understand many options, preserve their custody rights, and choose a time-sharing arrangement that best meets their specific needs.

Benefits of Hiring a Local Lawyer

It is important for an individual to obtain the professional help and guidance of a DC lawyer who knows the nuances of the local law and is familiar with how the various judges interpret the law. Understanding the local law as well as the particular judge may be difficult without qualified legal counsel. Every judge brings a wealth of experience or inexperience to a case, and some are uncomfortable with family law and being placed in a position of making decisions about other people’s children when they really know very little about the family dynamics.

A DC attorney who knows the law and how the judge thinks can help you understand a likely outcome at trial, which in turn will help you settle the case without the financial and emotional cost of litigation. Anticipating the result before the tribunal helps a parent decide whether they choose to agree to a proposed settlement or ask the judge to make the decision in the best interest of the child.

Initiating a Custody Case

According to local law, a parent, guardian, or court-appointed attorney to represent the child’s needs may initiate a case by asking a family court to decide custody. A judge may ask both parents to attend mediation, parenting classes, and submit a detailed parenting plan that delineates both physical and legal custody.


In order to make changes to an existing child custody order, a judge must find that there has been a substantial and material change in a family’s circumstances since the last custody order.

While there is always a preference for stability and the finality of the child custody determination, it can always be renegotiated. If a court order involving custody no longer meets a family’s needs or is no longer in the child’s best interest, and if that change rises to the level of a substantial and material change in circumstances, then modification is warranted. Either parent – or both – can request that the court modify the current custody order.

The purpose of requiring that there be a substantial and material change in circumstances is to preserve the status quo of the current order and arrangement. Unless it is more appropriate to modify the order, a judge usually prefers to let it remain in effect in order to preserve stability and consistency in the child’s life. It is crucial to meet with an experienced legal representative to determine whether there has been a substantial change in circumstances.

A parent who wants to modify child custody where there is no substantial and material change in circumstances risks wasting time and money. Moreover, being in court is stressful and emotional.

Many child custody matters stem from divorce proceedings. Whenever two parents get divorced, they can ask the court to decide the custody of their children. Whether a person is looking to protect their parental rights during a divorce, modify an existing child custody order, or establish a new parenting plan, a Washington DC lawyer could protect their interests and make the best arguments during litigation.

Important Considerations

There are 16 different factors that the courts consider when making a decision in the best interest of a child, and their importance or significance varies on a case-by-case basis. One of the factors that can impact the outcome of a custody case is whether the child has any special needs as well as which parent is better equipped to meet those needs.

The physical and mental health of both parents as well as the child’s age could also be factors during custody litigation. The parents’ abilities to communicate with each other and make decisions together about their child’s best interests is a very important factor, as well.

One of the most important factors, which actually shifts the presumption of joint custody, is whether the court finds that any or both parents committed an act of domestic violence or whether a parent abused or neglected the child. If one parent is found to have abused the other or the child, then it is presumed that the other parent will have custody.

Advice from an Attorney

A lawyer who understands that the child is now going to be spending time in two different households can advise parents on what kind of custodial arrangements might be in their child’s best interest. If the parents experienced high conflict or a difficult marriage, or if they disagree about whether to divorce, an attorney could help determine which custody schedules would be developmentally appropriate for the children while minimizing the conflict and stress.

For example, if a child is older and the parents live in close proximity to each other, a custody schedule that places the child with one parent for one week and then with the other parent for the following week may be appropriate. Because the child only has to transition from one household to another once a week and pick-ups and drop-offs can be done from the school, the parents may not have to see each other that often. The child has the benefit of an entire week of stability in one household before transitioning to another.

A legal representative from our firm could discuss a parent’s options and help them determine which child custody arrangement best meets their children’s needs. Each family is different, so discussing the facts of your case and seeking the advice of an experienced lawyer will benefit you substantially before making your case in court.

What are the Advantages of Obtaining a Court Order?

Child custody does not have to be established in court. Some parents can agree about custody issues and are very flexible. There are multiple advantages of having a court order, however, such as being able to rely on the enforceability. Having a court order means having the right to go back to the court to let it know that other party is not abiding by the terms of their arrangement.

While it may be extreme, it is sometimes necessary to call the police to enforce a child custody agreement. The police will only enforce the agreement, however, if it is a court order. For example, if one parent is refusing to transfer the child to the other, they can go to the police to enforce the court order immediately. Consulting with a DC attorney can help ensure that the court order will protect you in situations that can be dangerous and traumatic not only for you but also for your child.

Parents can also participate in alternative dispute resolutions. They can come up with a particular person that they both agree to let mediate the dispute. Parents may consult an expert called a parenting coordinator to help them resolve disputes instead of returning to court. The agreement to use a parent coordinator can be written into a court order, as can using judicial mediation or even the court’s free service, the Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Center. Getting the custody agreement you want does not have to involve a trial. A lawyer can help you choose which alternative dispute resolution methods make the most sense for you.

Determining Visitation Rights

Visitation or access can be used as other words for physical custody, and one parent’s visitation or access rights can be spelled out in a court order. If a parent is awarded visitation, that can mean having physical custody rights as well as joint legal custody rights. When it may not be safe for either or both parents, or for the child, visitation can be supervised in the court’s visitation center. In the context of DC law, parents presumably share both physical and legal custody. There are many factors that courts use to determine a particular joint custody arrangement.

It is a judge’s responsibility to determine an access schedule or a parent’s visitation rights if the parents cannot agree on a time-sharing schedule. Judges are almost always willing to enter a custody order to which both parents agree. Where one parent is unreasonably preventing the other to exercise visitation rights, the judge will almost always enter an order granting visitation as quickly as possible.

If a DC Superior Court judge does decide that one parent should not have any visitation, that parent should seek an attorney from our firm quickly. Orders that limit or prohibit visitation can be appealed, but the notice of appeal to the DC Court of Appeals must be filed within thirty days.

What are the Rights of Parents?

A custodial parent may have both physical and/or legal custody rights, which means they can spend time with their child and/or make major decisions such as where they attends school, whether they should receive certain medical or mental health treatment, and what religious or cultural upbringing they will have, if any. A custodial parent could have legal custody rights or physical custody rights – or both.

On the other hand, a non-custodial parent does not have as much physical custody as the custodial parent, but it varies case to case. the legal language used to describe a parent’s custody rights may not accurately reflect what actually happens in a child’s life.

Non-Biological Parents

According to DC law, a person who is not biologically related to a child can have the same rights as a parent. With a same-sex couple, for example, both parents have the same rights even though one or both of them share no DNA with the child. A third party, such as a child’s relative, may also be awarded the same rights as a parent.

For example, local law allows a grandparent to have sole legal and physical custody of a child where, for example, the child has been living with the grandparent for their entire life and the grandparent has been exercising all of the responsibilities of a parent. A grandparent who has been acting as a parent without the authority of a court order may run into legal problems without a court order, so it would be best for any third-party seeking custody to consult an attorney. Any court order would involve suing both of the child’s parents in order to get the legal recognition that the grandparent would need as the custodial parent.

Reach out to a Washington DC Child Custody Attorney Today

Nothing is more important than ensuring the physical safety, emotional well-being, and education of your kids. Developing a parenting plan with the help of an attorney can help protect your children’s futures.

Divorces and separations between parents often require a court to make a ruling on child custody. Additionally, parents who already have an active child-sharing arrangement can ask a court to change its terms if it no longer serves their family’s needs.

A Washington DC child custody lawyer could offer more insight about applicable laws and what to expect when taking your case to court. Contact us today to learn more about your options.