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

Learn whether and how an extramarital affair could affect alimony, property division, or other issues in your D.C. divorce.

By , Legal Editor

If your marriage is ending because you—or your spouse—had an extramarital affair, you may be wondering how it could affect your divorce in Washington, D.C. Although judges typically don't favor using divorce proceedings as a way to punish unfaithful spouses, adultery could potentially play a role in some—but not all—of the judge's decisions.

Can Adultery Be a Reason for Divorce in the District of Columbia?

Washington, D.C. recognizes only no-fault divorces. When you file for divorce, the only reason ("ground") you need to give is that you no longer want to stay in the marriage. You may not use your spouse's adultery as a ground for divorce. (D.C. Code § 16-904 (2024).)

Can Adultery Affect Alimony Awards in the District of Columbia?

When judges are deciding on the amount and duration of alimony in Washington, D.C., they must consider all of the relevant circumstances, including a specific list of factors. One of those factors is the circumstances that contributed to the spouses' "estrangement." As an example of those circumstances, the law mentions any history of a spouse's physical, emotional, or financial abuse" against the other spouse. (D.C. Code § 16-913(d)(5) (2024).)

Although the law doesn't specifically refer to adultery, a judge could reasonably conclude that a spouse's extramarital affair led to the breakup of the marriage, if the evidence supports that conclusion.

That said, it's important to point out that adultery would only be one consideration among many. Typically, the judge will aim at reaching a fair result by focusing on the factors that affect one spouse's need for support and the other spouse's ability to pay.

Can Adultery Affect Property Division, Child Custody, or Support in Washington, D.C.?

When it comes to other issues in a District of Columbia divorce—such as property division, child custody, and child support—adultery may or may not play a role in the judge's decisions.

Adultery and Property Division in the District of Columbia

As with alimony, judges are required to consider certain factors when they're dividing couple's property in the D.C. divorce, including the circumstances that led to the spouses' estrangement. That means that if one spouse's extramarital affair caused the breakup of the marriage, a judge could take the adultery into account when deciding on an equitable distribution of the marital property and debts.

It's worth pointing out that the law also requires judges to consider each spouse's contribution to the dissipation (wasting) of the couple's assets. So in cases that involve both adultery and asset dissipation—such as when a spouse spent a lot of the couple's money for lavish gifts or vacations with a lover—a judge might be more likely to award the other spouse a greater share of the remaining assets to achieve a fair result.

(D.C. Code § 16-910(a)(2) (2024).)

Adultery and Child Custody in D.C.

In the vast majority of cases, a parent's adultery won't affect a judge's decision about child custody in D.C. Judges must focus primarily on what's in the child's best interest, considering all of the relevant circumstances in the family. They won't consider either parent's behavior during the marriage unless it negatively affects the child's well-being.

However, judges will consider the parents' ability to communicate with each other and share decisions about their child's upbringing. So if an affair led to a complete, irreparable breakdown in communication between the parents, the judge might decide that joint custody wouldn't be feasible.

(D.C. Code § 16-914(a)(3) (2024).)

Adultery and Child Support in D.C.

As in the rest of the U.S., D.C. uses a child support guideline to calculate how much support divorced or separated parents must pay for their kids. Although the guideline formula is complicated, it's largely based on the parents' incomes, their custody arrangements, and the children's needs. Either parent's adultery won't factor into the child support award. (D.C. Code §§ 16-916, 16-916.01 (2024).)

Getting Help When Your Divorce Involves Adultery

If adultery played a role in the breakdown of your marriage—and you and your spouse are fighting over alimony, property division, or other issues in your divorce—you might want to consider mediation as a way of working out your disagreements. If the process is successful, you may be able to file for an uncontested divorce in the District of Columbia—a faster and cheaper alternative to a traditional, contested divorce.

But if mediation doesn't work or isn't appropriate (such as in cases involving domestic violence or a serious imbalance of power), you should strongly consider speaking with an experienced family lawyer who can help ensure that you get the outcome you deserve under the circumstances.