District of Columbia Child Custody Laws

Learn how child custody works in D.C., including how judges make decisions and how to change custody orders.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
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Ending a relationship is tough, especially when you and your partner have children. In addition to dividing your property, you'll have to figure out where your children will live and who will make important decisions about their upbringing. Here's an overview of how D.C. law deals with these issues.

Types of Child Custody in D.C.

There are two types of child custody in the District of Columbia: physical and legal. Each type of custody may be awarded to one parent (sole custody) or both parents (joint custody).

Legal Custody

Legal custody means having "legal responsibility" for a child. Legal responsibility includes the right to:

  • make decisions about that child's health, education, and well-being
  • access important records (such as school and medical), and
  • speak to people who interact with the child like teachers, doctors, and counselors.

When a parent has sole legal custody, that parent can make all major decisions about the child's upbringing without the other parent's input or consent.

When parents share joint legal custody, they share decision-making rights, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will each have an equal say in every decision. A judge may order, or the parents may agree, to give one parent the final say in certain areas. For example, one parent may decide where the child goes to school while the other picks the child's pediatrician and dentist.

For practical reasons, a judge may also designate one parent as the tie-breaking authority when parents with joint custody can't agree on an issue.

(D.C. Code § 16–914(a)(1) (2024); Macklin v. Johnson, 268 A.3d 1273 (D.C. 2022).)

Physical Custody

Physical custody means a child's living arrangements—where the child lives and who gets to spend time with the child.

When a parent has sole physical custody, the child lives with that parent (the "custodial parent") and the noncustodial parent usually has visitation (sometimes called "access"). Visitation is the right to see and contact a child while the child lives with the other parent.

When parents have joint physical custody, the child spends time with each parent. But that doesn't necessarily mean an equal 50/50 split. Judges may, and often do, grant primary physical custody to one parent and ample visitation rights to the other in a joint custody order. For example, a child might live with the parent who has primary custody during the school year and the other parent during school breaks.

(D.C. Code § 16–914(a)(1) (2024); Estopina v. O'Brian, 68 A.3d 790 (D.C. 2013).)

D.C. Law Prefers Joint Legal and Physical Custody

In the District of Columbia, as in all states, judges make custody decisions based on what's in the best interests of the child (more on the "best interests" standard below).

Recognizing that most kids benefit from having "frequent and continuing contact" with each of their parents, D.C. law requires judges to presume that joint custody is in the child's best interests. But that presumption can be "rebutted" (opposed) when a judge finds it's more likely than not that the family has a history of domestic violence, child abuse, child neglect, or parental kidnapping. In fact, when a judge has reason to believe abuse, neglect, or parental kidnapping is an issue, there is a rebuttable presumption that joint custody is not in the best interest of the child (more on that below).

(D.C. Code § 16–914(a)(2) (2024).)

How to Apply for Child Custody

If you have children and file for divorce in D.C., a judge will likely decide the custody issue as part of your divorce. If you aren't married to your child's other parent, you'll have to file a complaint for child custody.

If you have questions about child custody, you should talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can answer your questions, fill out and file the correct paperwork, help you try to reach an agreement with your child's other parent, and advocate for you in court if necessary. If you don't have an attorney, you can contact D.C.'s Family Court Self-Help Center.

Parenting Plans

Parents in D.C. can always agree on how they'll make important decisions about their children (legal custody) and where and when their children will spend time (physical custody and visitation). But to have the agreement made part of a court order, they'll need to put it in a written "parenting plan" and submit it to the judge. A judge must approve their agreement unless there is clear and convincing evidence that the agreed arrangement isn't in the child's best interest.

(D.C. Code § 16–914(c) (2024).)

What's in a D.C. Parenting Plan?

A parenting plan is a roadmap for how parents will meet their child's needs while living in separate households. The more details they include in their plan the better. In D.C., a parenting plan must include the parents' positions on legal and physical custody. It may also answer some or all of the following questions:

  • Who will make decisions about issues like religion, diet, medical care, mental health care, discipline, choice of school, choice of study, and activities?
  • What process will you use to make decisions?
  • Who will make the final decision if you can't agree on an issue?
  • Who will have access to the child's school, medical, psychiatric, and dental records?
  • Where will the child live?
  • When exactly will the child be with each parent?
  • Who will pick up and drop off the child during custody exchanges?
  • Who will pay for transportation costs?
  • Where will the child be for holidays, birthdays, and summer vacation?
  • Who gets to attend the child's school and extracurricular activities?
  • How will parents make temporary adjustments to their parenting time schedules?
  • How will the parents contact each other (phone, text, email)?
  • When and how will the child communicate with each parent?
  • How will the parents financially support the child based on the child's needs and the parents' resources?
  • How will the parents resolve conflict? For example, will the parents agree to attend family counseling or mediation before returning to court?

The District of Columbia Courts publishes a sample parenting plan that you can fill out and submit or use as a jumping-off point to write your own.

(D.C. Code § 16–914(c) (2024).)

When Parents Can't Agree on a Plan

When D.C. parents can't agree on legal and physical custody, a judge may order each parent to submit a parenting plan with a proposed schedule and blueprint for how to divide responsibilities and decision-making. A judge must consider these parenting plans when fashioning a custody order that's in the child's best interests.

A judge may order either or both parents to attend a parenting class. The class (sometimes called "PAC"—short for the Program for Agreement and Cooperation) explains the court process and helps parents understand how conflict negatively impacts kids. Children may attend a separate, age-appropriate seminar at the same time.

The D.C. Family Court also offers free mediation through its Multi-Door Division. Mediation is designed to help parents reach an agreement and avoid the emotional and financial toll of a custody trial. Parents meet with a trained mediator together and separately to resolve their disputes. Mediation is voluntary in D.C. and might not be appropriate in cases involving domestic violence or child abuse. A mediator can help you write up an agreement you reach in mediation to submit to the judge for approval.

(D.C. Code § 16–914(c) and (d) (2024); D.C. Super. Ct. Admin Order No. 16-03, Establishing the Program for Agreement and Cooperation, March 14, 2016.)

How Judges Make Custody Decisions in D.C.

When parents can't agree on custody, a judge will have to decide for them. A judge's primary consideration when making custody decisions is always what's in the best interests of the child.

When deciding what's best for a child, D.C. law requires judges to consider all relevant factors, including, but not limited to:

  • the child's wishes (more on that below)
  • both parents' wishes, as well as the sincerity of their custody requests
  • the child's interactions and relationships with the parents, any siblings, and anyone else who might have a significant impact on what's best for the child
  • the child's adjustment to home, school, and community, and any potential disruptions to the child's social and school life as a result of custody arrangements
  • the mental and physical health of all individuals involved
  • evidence of domestic violence (more on that below)
  • the parents' capacity to communicate and reach shared decisions about the child
  • each parent's willingness to share custody
  • each parent's prior involvement in the child's life
  • how far apart the parents live from each other
  • the demands of each parent's jobs
  • the number and age of the parents' kids
  • the impact of the custody decision on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and other public benefits, and
  • the benefit to the parents.

(D.C. Code §§ 16–914(a)(3), 16-1001(8) (2024).)

Can Characteristics Like Race, Sex, Gender Identity, or Political Affiliation Affect Custody in D.C.?

D.C. law explicitly says the "race, color, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression" of a parent shall not be a conclusive consideration for judges making custody decisions.

(D.C. Code § 16–914(a) (2024).)

Outside Help With Custody Decisions

When making a custody decision, a judge may appoint a parenting coordinator to help parents develop a parenting plan and resolve logistical problems, and a guardian ad litem (GAL) or an attorney to represent the child's interests.

(D.C. Code §§ 16–914(g) (2024); Jordan v. Jordan, 14 A.3d 1136 (D.C. 2011); Super. Ct. Dom. Rel. R. 53.)

How Much Say Do Children Have in Custody Decisions?

D.C. judges must consider a child's wishes "when practicable." A judge may not ignore a child's wishes based on age alone. Of course, judges don't have to adopt a child's preference, but they have to factor it into their decision about what's best for the child.

It is up to the judge to decide whether to interview a child in the judge's chambers (sometimes called "in camera"), have the child testify, or appoint a GAL to speak on behalf of the child.

(D.C. Code §§ 16–914(a)(3) (2024); P.F. v. N.C., 953 A.2d 1107 (D.C. 2008); Duguma v. Ayalew, 145 A.3d 517 (D.C. 2016).)

How Does Domestic Violence Affect Child Custody in D.C.?

Judges must fully consider any evidence of domestic violence, child abuse, child neglect, and parental kidnapping. Domestic violence is called an "intrafamily offense" in D.C. and includes any offense punished as a crime against:

  • an intimate partner
  • family member
  • household member, or
  • any of those individual's pets.

If a judge finds that it's more likely than not that this type of abuse has occurred in the family recently or in the past, the judge must presume that joint custody isn't in the child's best interest. To overcome that presumption, the alleged abuser would have to convince the judge that allowing joint custody or visitation is in the child's best interests and won't endanger the child or impair the child's emotional development. A judge is allowed to grant an alleged abuser visitation only when the child and custodial parent can be protected.

Judges who want to foster healthy and safe interactions among family members impacted by domestic violence may order that visits with a child and alleged abuser be supervised. During supervised visitation, a neutral outsider is present to make sure the child is safe and comfortable. The D.C. Family Courts have a Supervised Visitation Center (SVC) that provides monitored visitation and custody exchanges in a neutral, child-friendly environment.

If you're experiencing domestic violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or the D.C. Victim Helpline at 1-844-443-5732 for help.

(D.C. Code §§ 16–914(a) and (a-1), 16-1001(8) (2024).)

Child Custody and Relocation Laws in D.C.

Joint physical custody arrangements typically work best when parents live close to each other. It's fairly easy to spend weeknights at one parent's house and weekends at the other's when they live 15 minutes apart from each other. But what happens when one parent wants to move to another town, state, or even another country?

Relocation cases are some of the most complicated custody disputes. In D.C., a judge considering a parent's request to relocate with the child must consider the child's best interests (as discussed above), as well as all of the following factors:

  • the strength of the child's relationship with each parent
  • the child's resources, temperament, and developmental needs
  • the psychological stability of the relocating parent
  • the effectiveness of each parent's approach to parenting
  • how well the current custody arrangement is working and how the proposed relocation might change it
  • the pros and cons of the proposed relocation and how it might disrupt the child's life
  • the opportunities the child would have in each location
  • how the child might benefit from a relocating parent's improved circumstances
  • the feasibility of an alternative visitation schedule, considering distance and travel time
  • why the parents are proposing and opposing relocation
  • how the child's relationship with the noncustodial parent will be affected by the move
  • the amount of support the custodial parent has shown for the child's relationship with the noncustodial parent, and
  • the amount of conflict between the parents and the recency of the parent's split.

Learn more about how a parent's move can affect custody and visitation.

(Estopina v. O'Brian, 68 A.3d 790 (D.C. 2013).)

Do Grandparents Have Visitation Rights in D.C.?

Grandparents often play an important role in a grandchild's life, but that role can be disrupted when the child's parents break up or divorce. What rights, if any, do grandparents have to see their grandkids?

Parents generally get to decide whether and how often grandparents see their grandchildren. If the parents don't live together, each parent can allow visits with their parents during their parenting time.

Grandparents may file a complaint for third-party custody or visitation only when:

  • the parent who is or has been the primary caretaker of the child within the last three years consents to the request for visitation or custody
  • the grandparent has recently been living with and taking care of the child like a parent for several months, or
  • the grandparent is living with the child and needs custody to prevent harm to the child.

D.C. law presumes that custody with a parent is in the child's best interests, but that presumption can be overcome when, for example, the parents can't take care of the child or the child's physical or emotional well-being is at risk with the parents. As always, a judge must carefully weigh whether granting a grandparent visitation or custody is in the child's best interests.

If you're a grandparent who is considering asking for visitation or custody, consider setting up a meeting with a neutral person like a mediator to try to work out an agreement, or a lawyer in the county where your grandchild lives if you plan to file a complaint in court.

(D.C. Code §§ 16–831.01, 16-831.02, 16-831.07, 16-831.08 (2024); Pleasant v. Gibson, 285 A.3d 1246 (D.C. 2022); Littman v. Cacho, 143 A.3d 90 (D.C. 2016).)

Changing Custody and Visitation Orders in D.C.

Although the term "permanent custody" is frequently used in D.C., all custody orders may potentially be changed. A custody arrangement that works for a toddler might not work for a tween. Similarly, parents' schedules and circumstances change over the years too.

When a custody arrangement is no longer working, the parents can reach a new agreement for a judge to approve. If parents can't agree, either parent may file a motion to modify visitation or custody.

Judges may modify an existing order only when the parent asking for the change can prove that:

  • there's been a substantial and material change in circumstances, and
  • the modification is in the child's best interests.

A major life change alone, like a parent's new job or remarriage, isn't enough to get a modification. A judge must decide whether the change is in the child's best interests using the same "best interests" custody factors (listed above) that go into an initial custody determination.

(D.C. Code §§ 16–914(a)(3) and (f), 16-914.01 (2024)

Getting Help With Child Custody in D.C.

If you can, try to avoid a court battle over child custody and visitation. A legal battle will likely cost you a lot of time, money, and sleepless nights. You know your child best and are in the best position to develop a plan that meets your child's needs.

If you need help communicating with your child's other parent, reach out to the D.C. court's free Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division. The Family Court Self-Help Center offers free information (but not legal advice) about D.C. family law and the court process, including which forms to fill out and how to complete them.

If you still can't agree on what's best for your child, you should consider talking to a lawyer. If you end up in court, you'll want a lawyer on your side to fight for you and what you think is best for your child. Learn more about when to hire a child custody lawyer.

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