District of Columbia Child Custody Laws

Learn how child custody is determined in Washington D.C., how you can modify custody orders, and more

A child’s best interests are central to any child custody decision in D.C. Judges are prohibited from basing custody decisions solely on a parent’s race, color, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.

Custody laws in the District of Columbia also recognize that most children are best served by having frequent contact with both parents. However, in certain situations, parents may have limits placed on their visitation rights or ability to make decisions on the child’s behalf.

This article discusses how judges decide custody in D.C. and what factors impact a child’s best interests. If you have additional questions after reading this article, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Overview of Child Custody in D.C.

There are two types of custody a judge must evaluate in any case involving children: physical and legal custody. A parent who has “physical custody” of a child, primarily lives with the child.

Parents can share physical custody, called “joint custody.” Joint physical custody arrangements don’t necessarily mean equal time; however, parents with joint custody will both spend a substantial amount of time with the child.

For example, one parent may have the child three nights per week and the other parent will have the child four nights per week. In cases where there’s been domestic violence or the parents simply live far apart, a judge may award one parent sole physical custody.

“Legal custody” refers to a parent’s right to make important medical, legal, educational, and religious decision on a child’s behalf. In D.C., judges prefer to award joint legal custody and give both parents an active role in the child’s life and rearing. In cases where there’s severe discord between the parents or joint custody isn’t in the child’s best interests, a judge may award one parent sole legal custody.

Even when parents share joint physical and legal custody, one parent will be named the “custodial parent,” and the other parent is called the “noncustodial parent.” The custodial parent is usually the parent who spends more time with the child. A custodial parent has the final say on decisions involving the child when the parents can’t agree. See D.C. Code § 16-914 (2020.)

Understanding Child Custody and Visitation Orders

Parents can reach custody and visitation agreements on their own or with a mediator’s help. A judge will review any agreement to ensure that it adequately meets a child’s needs. In cases where parents can’t agree, a judge will devise a custody plan based on a child’s best interests.

A child custody order in D.C. will set forth a physical and legal custody schedule, including when and where visits with the child will take place. Your custody and visitation schedule may vary during the summer and holidays.

Under a D.C. visitation schedule, usually the noncustodial parent will receive extended visits during the summer and school breaks. Parents must follow the terms of the custody order exactly. A parent who ignores the order or denies the other parent visitation can face legal consequences.

How to Get Full Custody in D.C.

Many parents want to know how they can get joint or full custody in D.C. The answer lies with a child’s best interests. A parent who can show that he or she is most equipped to meet the child’s needs for safety and stability is likely to get full custody in D.C.

A judge will examine several factors to determine custody arrangement is in the child’s best interests. For example, court will consider the physical and mental health of the parents, the child, and any other individual who may be involved in the custody arrangement, such as a live-in relative.

A judge may deny a parent custody or limit visitation to supervised visits if there’s evidence that one parent has engaged in domestic violence, child abuse or neglect. 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.

Child’s Emotional and Developmental Needs

In addition to the factors above, a judge will consider the relationship between the child and each parent and each parent’s involvement 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 children in each parent’s home, the demands of the parents’ jobs, and the child’s emotional, physical and educational needs.

Child’s Preference

D.C. custody laws require a judge to consider a child’s preference whenever it’s reasonable to do so. What this means is that there’s no minimum age when a judge must listen to a child’s opinion. A child who is old enough to express a well-reasoned preference should be listened to under D.C. law. In most cases, a child who is eight or nine can express a preference in a custody case.

Co-Parenting Factors

The parents’ ability to communicate with each other about child-rearing decisions is an important factor in all custody decisions, but particularly in a case involving joint physical and/or legal 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.

Parenting Plans

Parents can 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 parent to submit a proposed plan.

A judge will select the plan that best serves a child’s best interests. The more specific a parenting plan is, the easier it will be to follow and to enforce. At a minimum, your parenting plans should include the following provisions:

  • allocation of parental decision-making authority for the child’s education, religious instruction, and medical care
  • each parent’s right to access educational, medical, psychiatric, and dental treatment records
  • designation of parental responsibility for non-emergency medical, psychiatric, and dental treatment decisions
  • the child’s custody and visitation schedule with each parent, including a schedule for holidays, vacations, and other special occasions
  • each parent’s responsibility for transporting the child between visits
  • methods of communication between the child and the parents
  • financial provisions for the child’s needs, and
  • a method for resolving potential disputes.

Modifying Custody Arrangements in D.C.

Life inevitably changes over time. Sometimes your custody order will need to adjust with your changing life circumstances. A judge will modify your custody order if there’s been a material change in circumstances that affects your child’s best interests.

For example, one parent’s job change or new marriage alone, probably isn’t enough to justify a change in custody. However, if the primary custodial parent’ marries a convicted domestic abuser, the noncustodial parent might have a good argument for changing custody.

Either parent can file a petition to modify custody. A judge will schedule a modification hearing. The parent filing for a custody change has the burden of proving that a custody change is in the child’s best interests.

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