A divorce is sometimes an unfortunate and sometimes a necessary end to a marriage. Going through the process of dissolving a marriage involves knowing your legal rights and obligations.

A divorce can be relatively simple if both parties agree on their marital issues such as the distribution of marital property or the custody of children. Otherwise, disagreements over the custody of shared children or the distribution of marital assets can quickly turn any divorce into a complex legal undertaking.

A Washington DC divorce lawyer could help you protect your assets and advocate for your rights and your children’s needs in court. An attorney from our firm could also help you demonstrate your need for child support or alimony during court proceedings. En Español.

Requirements for Dissolving a Marriage

DC law requires parties to be residents before they can file for a divorce. Specifically, one or both of the parties must be a resident of DC for at least six months prior to filing a complaint for divorce. Additionally, the couple must be living separately and apart for at least six months prior to finalizing their complaint for divorce.

While there are some exceptions to the residency requirement, the purpose of it is to prevent estranged couples from going to DC to get divorced as opposed to staying in their own jurisdictions. Just like every jurisdiction, DC has taxpayers that contribute to the court system. The Superior Court and the laws of DC are designed to protect local residents and taxpayers.

Legal Grounds for Divorce in Washington DC

Family courts in Washington DC will only hear a marriage dissolution case if the parties cite a valid legal ground for divorce. According to the Code of District Columbia §16-904, a court will only grant a divorce if the parties have either voluntarily lived apart without cohabitation for at least six months or lived apart without consent for one year.

Essentially, there is a required waiting period for marriage dissolution. Additionally, DC Code §16-902 states that at least one of the parties must have lived in Washington DC for at least six months prior to filing for divorce. An attorney can help you file for divorce and can streamline the process so that you may only have to appear in court once.

Filing a Complaint for Divorce

The party who files a complaint for divorce has the burden of serving documents on the opposing party. Service means making sure that the other party gets a copy of the complaint and allowing them to respond with an answer.

The party filing initially, or the plaintiff, must serve the defendant spouse in a way that is legally valid. In other words, the plaintiff has to serve the defendant personally,  or by hiring or finding somebody who is over the age of 18 to serve the defendant personally.. The plaintiff can also send the complaint for divorce via certified mail, return receipt requested. There may be other ways to serve the defendant depending on the case and with the permission of the court.

While the process of serving divorce documents can be easier with today’s technology, it must still fulfill certain legal requirements. A DC lawyer can walk a spouse through the process of service to initiate the marriage dissolution process and make sure that the complaint for divorce is properly filed.

It is also essential to make sure that the complaint for divorce follows certain legal requirements. Parties to a divorce must generally show up to all court dates and follow any orders to appear unless, for example, the judge has  excused a party’s presence or the defendant has filed a consent answer

Where Should Someone Go to File for Divorce in DC?

A person needs to go to the DC Superior Court to file for divorce. A lawyer from our team can file for divorce on behalf of an estranged spouse and make that process a lot easier.

For example, a person who retains qualified legal counsel may only need to attend one court hearing to testify about where they have been living, where the other spouse has been living, whether they agree to be divorced, and whether they have been living separately and apart without cohabitation for the requisite period of time before the judge can grant their divorce. Meeting with a DC attorney before getting divorced can make the process much simpler.

Hopefully, estranged spouses are coming to the court with an agreement about how all of their property and assets are going to be divided. If not, the judge is going to make a determination about how marital property and debt should be equitably distributed..

Overview of the Marriage Dissolution Process in DC

What a person should expect during the divorce process in DC largely depends on whether they and their spouse can agree to the distribution of assets and property. If they do not even know what kind of assets their spouse has, or if there was no clear financial disclosure from one party prior to their marriage, they may want to consult with a lawyer.

Retaining an attorney can be such an important part of dissolving a marriage. One of our lawyers can assist with the discovery process by drafting questions and demanding that the opposing party turn over documents and other evidence that proves  to  their assets and relevant financial holdings.

What is the Difference between a Contested and Uncontested Divorce?

A contested divorce means that the parties either do not agree to dissolve their marriage, or they do not agree on how to resolve some of their marital issues, such as the distribution of marital property and debt. If one party knows right away that their spouse does not want to end the marriage, then their complaint for divorce would be contested. Alternatively, an uncontested divorce means that the parties agree to end their union – usually on amicable terms.

In the case of a contested divorce, the spouses have to have been living separately and apart for at least one year. If dissipation of marital assets or temporary alimony is an issue, you  may seek protection prior to the one-year waiting period by filing for a legal separation, which can occur immediately.

If the parties agree to end their marriage, they can file for an uncontested divorce, which makes the process quicker, easier, and less expensive. Parties to an uncontested marriage dissolution have resolved all of their marital issues and are just going to the court for a final  divorce decree. It is much quicker to have an uncontested divorce versus a contested one that requires a judge to make decisions about how to assign, value, and equitably distribute marital property.


Mediation is free to divorcing couples and provided by the Family Court’s’ Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Center. Their attorneys are trained mediators who help spouses come to an agreement that is then presented to a judge and entered as a court order.

Role of an Attorney

A mediator’s job is to be a neutral third party who helps the parties come to an agreement , which  saves the court’s time. A mediator will not advocate on behalf of either party or point out if the proposed agreement is unfair. Having a DC divorce lawyer during mediation is therefore crucial.

Your attorney’s job is to advise you of your rights and advocate for your desired outcome, whereas the mediator seeks to facilitate resolution of the case. Because the mediator is not obligated to ensure that an agreement is fair and cannot give you legal advice, you may want to seek an attorney.. A lawyer may be able to advise you about whether a proposed agreement is in your best interest and, if not, help draft a counter proposal that addresses your concerns and protects your rights. Sometimes, for the sake of reaching a quicker resolution and finalizing a divorce, one party may give up rights, for example, to marital property such as an equitable distribution of the other party’s retirement assets or a potential share of the marital home.  The mediator’s job is to memorialize the agreement and save the judge from having to take the time to make decisions about how to equitably distribute marital property, A lawyer can review any proposed agreement and ensure that you  possess a thorough understanding of your rights In other words, having a lawyer may help you make a more informed decision about entering into a binding agreement.

Parties seeking alternative dispute resolution may agree to split the expert mediator lawyer’s fees to help them reach an agreement. Through alternative dispute resolution, parties can choose their mediator. Just as in court ordered mediation, however, the mediator’s role is to be a neutral third party and facilitate the parties’ agreement. If you want a lawyer who can advocate for your  particular rights and review any proposed agreements resulting from alternative dispute resolution services, then it is up to you to choose and hire your own advocate.. An experienced attorney may also be able to advise you about whether the outcome reached through an agreement is more advantageous to you than going to trial. A lawyer may be able to help you weigh the advantages and disadvantages of settling a case versus going to trial.

We may be able to minimize any risks that you may be taking with a judge who is going to make decisions about how much marital property should be awarded to you versus your spouse. Ideally,  alternative dispute resolution or mediation will save time and money by avoiding a trial, but having a DC divorce lawyer advise you throughout this process is crucial.

Allocating Marital Property

A marriage dissolution is a legal split between two parties, and a final divorce decree must fully address the financial and legal rights and responsibilities of both spouses. One major issue in all divorces is the equitable distribution of marital debts and assets.

According to DC Code §16-910, local family law judges must make an “equitable” distribution of marital property, which is any asset that a couple accumulated during their marriage. Notably, this does not include property acquired prior to a marriage or acquired via gift or inheritance, regardless of when acquired. Sometimes even determining what is marital property and what is one spouse’s sole and separate property can be a difficult process that a DC divorce lawyer may be able to streamline.

When the court makes an equitable distribution, the goal is to distribute the marital property and debt in a fair way; however, what the court considers “equitable” may be unfair to you. A divorce lawyer in Washington DC could explain the law to you and help you protect your  property rights and assets. A divorce lawyer may be able to represent you and make arguments to the  judge to help  ensure that your interests are protected.

Divorces Involving Minor Children

Other commonly disputed topics in divorce cases are child custody and support. Whenever a married couple shares children, a local judge must make a decision about custody in the kids’ best interests, whether apart from or as part of a final divorce decree.

A custody order may include an award of granting custody to one or both parents, visitation schedules, and a child support order. No matter what the parents may agree to for the care of their children, DC Code §16-914 mandates the courts to always fashion an order in best interests of a child. When the parents agree to a custodial arrangement, the court is required to respect their decision absent clear and convincing evidence that the parents’ decision is not in the best interest of the children.

Why Are Divorces So Complicated?

Divorces in Washington DC can be very emotional. When one or both parties want to get divorced, there could be a lot of mixed feelings on either side. For example, contested child custody and support issues can complicate a marriage dissolution.

One of the most complicated aspects of a DC divorce is deciding which assets are considered marital property and separate property as well as subsequently valuing and distributing a couple’s marital property. The distribution of assets and debts between parties who are unable to agree may make getting divorced especially difficult given the emotional upheaval  of dissolving a union.

Costs Associated with Dissolving a Marriage

The cost of divorce varies.. A divorce may cost more if the parties do not agree on the distribution of their assets or debt. Parties who cannot agree may need to spend a lot of time and money at trial or in discovery to figure out what  issues are contested before then  asking a judge to make a determination. Fortunately, one of our DC divorce attorneys may be able to  help you figure out how to resolve  contested issues or disputes more quickly to save you money..

Who is Responsible for Covering the Cost of a Divorce?

Each party is generally responsible for paying their own attorney’s fees. Although there are exceptions, such as one party is in contempt of court, which makes the process extraordinarily difficult or time-consuming. The general rule is that each party pays for their lawyer, and both parties may be required to split the cost of an expert who may testify or another professional such as a parent coordinator or mediator.

Additionally, both parties may be responsible for the attorney’s fees of a guardian ad litem, who is an attorney that represents the best interest of the child. These attorneys may be appointed if one of the contested issues in a divorce concerns the care and custody of shared children.

Reasons to Contact a Lawyer

Someone considering divorce may benefit from contacting a DC attorney to help them become more knowledgeable of their rights under the law and to help ensure that their assets and property rights are protected. While you may decide to reconcile, consulting with a local lawyer may help you realize, for example, that you could benefit from entering into a postnuptial agreement.

Sometimes, a divorce is not up to you  and is not something you would choose, but it may not be up to you. In the end, being divorced is a right. Unfortunately, even if only one spouse wants to be divorced, the divorce will happen one way or another; it is just a matter of when. Whether you are the spouse initiating and wanting a divorce or trying to prevent it, contacting a lawyer as soon as you think that divorce may be a possibility may help ensure that you understand the law and that your rights are protected.

A lawyer can tell you what the law says and how a judge may interpret it. A lawyer may be able to explain why you should or should not agree to a settlement agreement or  deal being offered. An experienced legal advocate can help come up with a counter-proposal for the opposing party’s consideration so that you may be able to  resolve disputes, for example, about marital property or deb tin a cost-effective and faster way.

Call a Washington DC Divorce Attorney Today

Dissolving a marriage can be a chaotic time in a person’s life. Whether you are looking to start the process by filing a complaint or have recently been served with papers, you should act quickly to protect your rights. Let an attorney from our firm help you protect your assets and property and advocate for the custody of your children.

It is important to hire an experienced attorney with knowledge of local laws so you can anticipate how the local tribunal may treat your case. We may  also be able to advise you to accept a proposed agreement that your spouse’s lawyer is presenting or to draft a counter-proposal that better serves your interests.

A Washington DC divorce lawyer could help you achieve your goals by engaging in negotiation, settlement discussions, or discovery in preparation for trial. Especially if the opposing party has legal counsel, you may be at a disadvantage. Contact us today to schedule your consultation with a lawyer who may be able to help level the playing field.