Child Custody in D.C.: Best Interests of the Child
Learn about the "best interests" standard and how it applies to child custody cases in Washington D.C.
A judge making custody decisions in a divorce case in the District of Columbia puts the best interests of the children above all other concerns. District of Columbia law prohibits judges from basing custody decisions solely on a parent’s race, color, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. The law also recognizes that in general, it’s good for children to have frequent contact with both parents and have both parents participate in decision-making after divorce. In making custody decisions, judges can consider any factor relevant to parenting and are guided by some factors that are set out in the state’s laws.
Health and Safety
The safety and well-being of children is the court’s primary concern, and the policy in favor of shared parental responsibility will not apply if a court finds that shared custody would be detrimental to the child. The court may consider the mental and physical health of the parents, the child, and any other individual who may be involved in the custody arrangement, such as a live-in relative. Evidence that a parent has engaged in domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, or parental kidnapping may lead a judge to deny that parent contact with a child or to order supervised contact only.
Emotional and Developmental Needs
A court will consider the relationship between the child and each parent and how involved each parent has been in the child’s life. Courts prefer to maintain stability in a child’s home, school and community life and support the child’s important relationships, such as those with siblings and extended family. A judge will consider the wishes of both parents, as well as those of a child the judge deems mature enough. Other factors that may have an impact on a child’s emotional or developmental needs include the number of other children in each home and their ages, the demands of the parents’ jobs, and the mental and physical health of everyone involved.
The parents’ ability to communicate with each other about child-rearing decisions is an important factor in custody decisions, particularly in a case involving joint custody. A court will also consider the willingness of the parents to share custody. Judges may order one or both parents to attend parenting classes to learn how to co-parent more effectively.
Custody and Visitation Options
Legal custody refers to a parent’s authority to make significant or long-term decisions regarding a child’s health, education, and general welfare. Physical custody refers to who a child lives with. The law in the District of Columbia favors joint legal and physical custody, except in cases of domestic violence, child abuse, child neglect, or parental kidnapping. Nevertheless, a court may order legal or physical custody to one parent if the facts indicate that sole custody will be in the best interests of the child. An award of joint legal custody doesn’t automatically mean the parents will share physical custody as well, nor does joint physical custody necessarily require an equal division of time between parents. Many different parenting schedules can be appropriate depending on the individual circumstances of a case.
Parents have the opportunity to develop their own parenting plan, and a court will usually approve a plan that both parents have agreed upon. If parents disagree, the judge may require each of them to submit a proposed plan and then will either choose the plan that best supports the child’s interests or develop a plan independently. A judge must document the reasons for deciding on a custody arrangement that both parents don’t agree on.
The more specific a parenting plan is, the easier it will be to follow and to enforce. Final parenting plans should include provisions specifying the following:
- allocation of parental decision-making authority for the child’s education, religious instruction, and health care
- designation of rights of access to a child’s educational, medical, psychiatric, and dental treatment records
- designation of parental responsibility for non-emergency medical, psychiatric, and dental treatment decisions
- the child’s residential schedule with each parent, including a schedule for holidays, vacations, and other special occasions
- a method for transportation of the child between the parents’ homes
- methods of communication between the child and the parents
- financial provisions for the child’s needs, and
- a method for for resolution of disputes which may arise in the future.