Adultery in Washington, D.C.: Does Cheating Affect Alimony?

If you're getting divorced in Washington, D.C. and you or your spouse has cheated, you'll need to know how the adultery will affect the judge's decisions about your case, including alimony, child custody, and child support.

If you have decided to pursue a divorce based on adultery in your marriage, it's helpful to know if the adultery will affect the divorce proceeding in general, and specifically, whether it might impact any particular aspect of the divorce, such as alimony.

This article provides an overview of alimony and whether adultery impacts alimony awards in the District of Columbia.

Alimony in Washington, D.C.

The purpose of alimony (known as "maintenance" or "spousal support" in other states) is to prevent one spouse from walking away with the bulk of the marital funds and enjoying a comfortable life while leaving the other spouse with financial difficulties because of a lack of means, education, or earning history. Alimony is the money that one spouse (the "obligor") pays to the other (the "obligee") to ensure that their post-divorce standard of living is similar to the standard of living they had while married.

People commonly think of alimony as something the court awards after finalizing a divorce, but in the District of Columbia, the family court can order either spouse to pay alimony at any time after the petition for relief (the divorce paperwork) is filed. (D.C. Code Ann. § 16-911 (2021).) If the court orders a spouse to pay alimony during the divorce proceeding and before the divorce, the court refers to it as "alimony pendent lite."

When the judge makes a final decision about post-divorce alimony, the court can structure it in many ways. The obligor might have to pay alimony permanently or temporarily ("term-limited alimony"). The court can even backdate alimony awards to the date that the requesting spouse first asked for alimony. (D.C. Code Ann. § 16-913(c) (2021).) No matter what, the judge's job is to make sure that the alimony award is structured appropriately to the facts of the case, which means that the court must consider individual circumstances.

What Role Does Adultery Play in a District of Columbia Divorce?

To obtain an "absolute divorce" in Washington, D.C., you'll need to prove either that you and your spouse chose to separate and live apart for at least six months or that you lived separately for at least a year, even if it wasn't necessarily a voluntary decision. (D.C. Code Ann. § 16-904(a) (2021).) In other words, if you agree to separate, the separation period of six months is the only requirement you must meet to get a divorce. Alternatively, if one of you didn't agree to separate, or your spouse abandoned you, and you live apart for a year, then you can use that as your ground (reason) for divorce.

Washington, D.C. recognizes only no-fault divorces. That means that adultery, which is a form of marital misconduct that occurs when a legally married spouse has a sexual relationship with someone other than the person's lawful spouse, is not a ground for divorce in the District of Columbia.

How Does Adultery Affect Alimony Awards in the District of Columbia?

When deciding whether to award alimony and the duration and amount of the award, Washington, D.C. judges must consider the:

  • ability of the spouse seeking alimony to be wholly or partly self-supporting
  • time necessary for the spouse seeking alimony to gain sufficient education or training to enable that spouse to secure suitable employment
  • standard of living that the spouses established during their marriage or domestic partnership, but giving consideration to the fact that there will be two households to maintain
  • duration of the marriage
  • circumstances which contributed to the estrangement of the spouses
  • age of each spouse
  • physical and mental condition of each spouse
  • ability of the paying spouse to meet that spouse's needs while simultaneously meeting the needs of the other spouse, and
  • each spouse's needs and resources, including income, income from assets, potential income, any previous award of child support, each spouse's financial obligations, the right of a spouse to receive retirement benefits, and the taxability or non-taxability of income.

(D.C. Code Ann. § 16-913(d) (2021).)

Because one of the factors a judge can consider is "the circumstances that contributed to the parties' estrangement," Washington, D.C. judges can consider marital misconduct like adultery when making decisions about alimony. (D.C. Code Ann. § 16-913(d)(5) (2021).)

For example, if an adulterous spouse drained a joint marital bank account by spending money on expensive gifts and lavish vacations for a lover, the judge could consider this in a final alimony award. The adulterous spouse's marital misconduct had a clear and detrimental impact on the spouses' joint financial resources, so the court might decide to give the innocent spouse more alimony over a longer period.

There's one caveat. A judge's alimony decision must always be just and proper under the law, and the award has to be fair and equitable. In other words, the court order has to be reasonable, and a judge can't just try to punish an adulterous spouse for the sake of punishment. The court can consider adultery, but the judge must also consider all the other factors, ensuring fairness to both spouses.

Will Adultery Impact Custody or Child Support?

In most cases, a parent's marital misconduct won't impact the final child custody award. Instead of evaluating each parent's loyalty to the other, judges in the District of Columbia must consider what's in the child's best interest, including the:

  • child and parents' wishes
  • child's relationship with each parent
  • child's home, school, and community record
  • mental and physical health of the parents and the child
  • willingness of the parents to share custody
  • history of each parent's involvement in raising the child
  • capacity of each parent to communicate with each other regarding the child's welfare
  • extent to which a custody arrangement would disrupt the child's life
  • geographic proximity between the parent's' homes
  • age and number of children
  • employment demands of each parent
  • sincerity of each parent's request
  • ability of each parent to financially support the child
  • impact on a parent's need for state assistance, and
  • benefit to each parent.

(D.C. Code Ann. § 16-914(a)(3) (2021).)

The judge will not consider either parent's behavior during the marriage unless it impacted the child or continues to threaten the child's health, safety, or general well-being.

Child Support

In Washington, D.C., courts determine child support using a strict set of statutory guidelines. The judge will evaluate each parent's income and needs, time with the child (custody arrangement), medical expenses, and extraordinary expenses. (D.C. Code Ann. § 16-916.01 (2021).) Marital misconduct is not a factor the judge considers when creating a final child support award.

Additional Resources

If you have questions about alimony and adultery in Washington, D.C., you can look at the District of Columbia Courts' Family Court Self-Help Center. You can also browse for resources and assistance from a network of nonprofit legal service providers dedicated to helping low-income residents with legal problems. Finally, you can read through the District of Columbia Official Code if you're interested in finding out more about family laws.