Your District of Columbia Child Custody Case: The Basics

It’s a part of D.C. life that people come and go through the Beltway with each administration. You just didn’t expect your Federal City family to fall apart like the staff of an ousted Congresswoman. Now that you need to figure out if you or your ex will make the big decisions for your children and how, this is your introduction to the intricacies of District of Columbia child custody law.

How Does Child Custody Work?

Often, as part of a divorce or legal separation, parents will have to determine custody issues for their children. There are two different types of child custody in the District of Columbia. Legal custody means legal responsibility for your child, including the right to make decisions regarding your child’s health, education, and general welfare. You could have joint legal custody where you and your ex make decisions about your child together, or sole legal custody where one of you has the right to make the decisions about your child.

Physical custody refers to your child’s living arrangements like where your child lives, eats and sleeps. Physical custody includes your child’s residency or visitation schedule. You could have joint physical custody where your child stays with you and your ex some of the time, or sole physical custody where your child lives mostly with either you or your ex.

A parent may also have visitation (sometimes called access), which is your right to see and have contact with your child while the child lives with your ex. You and your ex can arrange visitation in whatever way suits your family.

How Do I File For a Custody Order?

You and your ex don’t have to battle over custody. If you can agree on the custody issues, you can file the agreement with the court in the form of a Custody Order, which lays out each parent’s rights and responsibilities. If you can’t come to an agreement on custody, you can file for a custody order.

You can file for custody in the District of Columbia if your child has been living in D.C. for at least six months before your case is filed, or your child lived in D.C., has been away less than six months, and either you or your ex continues to live in D.C. In order to start a case, you must file a Complaint for Custody and/or Visitation. After filing the complaint you must get a copy to your ex according to very specific legal requirements. If, instead, your ex has already filed a complaint against you, you must file the Answer to Complaint for Custody and/or Visitation within 20 days. After you file your answer, you must give a copy to your ex.

The D.C. courts have a Family Court Self-Help Center that can assist you with filing information. The court that handles custody cases in D.C. is the D.C. Family Court, which is a part of D.C. Superior Court. The Family Court is located at 500 Indiana Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001 (at 5th and D Streets, N.W.). It is one block from the Judiciary Square Metro stop (Red line) or one block from the Archives/Navy Memorial stop (Green/Yellow lines). You can file your custody papers Family Court Central Intake Center (CIC), located on the JM level of the courthouse, Room JM-520. CIC is open Monday - Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Here is more information on District of Columbia courthouses.

How Do Courts Determine Custody?

In a contested custody case, a judge must decide based on what is in the best interest of the child. Also, the law favors joint custody -- that it is best for your child if both parents are involved in making decisions. However, a judge can award sole custody if he or she decides that joint custody is not in a child’s best interest, or if there has been child abuse, child neglect, parental kidnapping, or domestic violence.

When determining what is in the best interest of a child, a judge can consider anything that has a bearing on what is best for the child. Specifically, the law says the judge must consider:

  • The wishes of your child;
  • The wishes of you and your ex;
  • Your child’s relationship with his or her parents, siblings, and others;
  • You child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community;
  • The mental and physical health of all individuals involved;
  • Any evidence of domestic violence;
  • Your ability to communicate with your ex and make shared decisions about your child;
  • Your willingness to share custody;
  • The prior involvement of you and your ex in your child’s life;
  • The potential disruption of your child’s social and school life;
  • The age and number of your children; and
  • Your ability to financially support a joint custody arrangement;

What Happens After the Court Issues a Child Custody Order?

After the court enters a final child custody order, both parents must abide by the order or risk being held in contempt of court. If your ex violates the custody order, you can ask a court for help in addressing the problem. The court could issue sanctions, such as a fine or imprisonment, or change the custody order.

The court can always consider changing a custody/visitation order. This is usually done by filing a Motion to Modify Custody/Visitation. The person who wants to modify the custody order must convince the judge that there has been some kind of significant change in circumstances since the original order was entered, and that a new arrangement is in the child’s best interest.

Additional Resources

Child custody decisions can be difficult situations for everyone, legally and emotionally. If you think you need help with filing petitions or appeals, you can try to consult with an experienced family attorney or find free legal aid in the District of Columbia. You can find additional general information in FindLaw’s child custody section.

Next Steps: Search for a Local Attorney

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