How Do I File for Divorce in D.C.?

Learn about the steps you’ll need to take to start the divorce process in the District of Columbia—and how you can get help.

By , Retired Judge

Along with the emotional and practical issues involved in ending a marriage, the divorce process itself requires navigating the legal system in the District of Columbia (D.C.). While that might seem overwhelming, it doesn't have to be all that difficult, particularly if you and your soon-to-be ex can cooperate. Here's what you need to know to get started with a D.C. divorce.

What to Know Before Filing for a D.C. Divorce

Before you begin the process of filing for divorce in D.C., you should figure out the answers to a few preliminary questions.

Do You Meet D.C.'s Residency Requirements for Divorce?

In order to file for divorce in D.C., either you or your spouse must have lived in the district for at least six months immediately before you file for divorce. (D.C. Code § 16-902(a) (2022).)

Do You Have Legal Grounds for Divorce?

As with all other jurisdictions in the United States, you need a legally accepted reason (or "ground") for divorce in D.C.. Many states allow divorce based on both "fault" grounds and "no-fault" grounds. Fault-based divorces allege spousal misconduct (like adultery, desertion, or cruelty). With no-fault grounds, neither spouse is accusing the other of wrongdoing.

D.C. doesn't allow fault-based divorces. In order to get a divorce in D.C., you must have lived separate and apart from your spouse for at least a certain period of time before you filed the initial divorce papers:

  • six months if both of you voluntarily agreed to the separation, or
  • one year if one of you didn't want to separate.

The court will consider you to be living separate and apart even if you're staying in the same home, as long as you're pursuing separate lives and aren't having marital relations. (D.C. Code § 16-904 (2022).)

Will Your Divorce Be Uncontested or Contested?

If you can file for an uncontested divorce in D.C., the entire process will be much easier, quicker, and less expensive than a traditional contested divorce. But for a divorce to be truly uncontested, you and your spouse will have had to settle all the issues involved in ending your marriage, including:

Once those issues are resolved, it's typical to incorporate the settlement terms in a marital settlement agreement, which can then become a part of your divorce judgment.

Will You Need Professional Help With Your Divorce?

If you have a settlement agreement and a relatively uncomplicated case, you should be able to handle filing for divorce yourself. A do-it-yourself divorce will be the cheapest route to ending your marriage, but it will take some time and attention to detail to make sure you have all the right forms, have filled them out correctly, and have followed all of the steps and requirements for divorce in D.C..

Short of having an attorney represent you in the divorce, there are other ways of getting help with the process. For example, you could do one or a combination of the following:

  • If you want the advantages of an uncontested divorce but are having trouble agreeing with your spouse about some issues, divorce mediation may help you work through the obstacles and reach an agreement.
  • You can file for divorce online by using a service that will provide you with the completed forms and basically walk you through the process. But online divorce services normally require that you have an uncontested divorce.
  • Even if you pursue the do-it-yourself or online divorce option, you might want to consult with a lawyer when you have questions or want an independent legal review of your settlement agreement.

D.C. courts offer mediation services through their Multi-Door Mediation Division.

Without an agreement, you'll follow a traditional contested divorce route. Because that will almost certainly require hiring a lawyer—who will take care of the forms, filing, and all other legal matters during the divorce—the information outlined below is mainly focused on the filing process for folks who are handling their own divorce.

Preparing the Initial Divorce Papers

The D.C. Courts website provides some forms you'll need for your divorce, along with instructions.You can get additional information and forms at the LawHelp.org/DC website. On the forms, the spouse who files for divorce is referred to as either the "plaintiff" or the "petitioner." The other spouse is the "defendant" or "respondent."

If you're the one starting the divorce process, the main form you'll need is the "Complaint for Absolute Divorce." This provides the court with information about the marriage and what you're seeking in the divorce, such as alimony or property division. There are other forms you'll need to attach to the complaint if there are open issues regarding:

You'll also file a "Confidential Information Form."

Filing and Serving the Divorce Papers

When you're ready to file your divorce papers, you'll take them to the Family Court Central Intake Center (CIC). Or, if you prefer, you may instead file the paperwork electronically, through D.C.'s efiling system, File & Serve Xpress.

Be prepared for the fact that courts charge fees for filing legal documents. The filing fee for a divorce complaint was $80 as of 2022. But these fees are subject to change, so check the family court fees online. If you can't afford to pay the court costs, you may request that the court waive them by filing an "Application to Proceed Without Prepayment of Costs, Fees, or Security."

Once you've filed the divorce papers, you'll receive a summons to deliver to your spouse along with the complaint and other documents. You may not simply hand over these documents. Instead, you must use one of the methods allowed in D.C. to "serve" your spouse with the paperwork:

  • Acknowledgment of service: The easiest method is to mail the documents by first-class mail, along with with two copies of a "Notice and Acknowledgment of Service" and a stamped, self-addressed envelope for returning the form. As the name suggests, this document allows your spouse to acknowledge having received the divorce papers. If your spouse doesn't sign and return the form within 21 days after receiving the divorce papers, you'll have to use one of the other methods described below. But if there wasn't a good reason not to do that, the judge will order your spouse to pay your costs for another method of service.
  • Registered or certified mail: You may mail the the divorce papers by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested. Here again, you'll have to use another method of service if your spouse doesn't return the signed receipt.
  • Personal service: Another adult (who's not involved in the divorce case) may hand deliver the documents to your spouse. Rather than getting friends or family members involved, many plaintiffs opt to leave the job to a U.S. marshall or a professional process server.
  • Service outside of D.C.: If your spouse is in a U.S. state outside of D.C., you may use any method of service allowed in that state or in the D.C. rules. Check with the court about how to serve the papers if your spouse is in another country.
  • Missing spouse: If you haven't been able to find your spouse after making serious attempts to do so, contact the CIC about alternative methods of service, like publishing a notice in a newspaper.

Within 60 days after you filed the complaint, you'll need to file proof with the court that you served the divorce papers on your spouse. Professional process servers may do this for you, but it's your responsibility to make sure that happens. If you miss the deadline, the judge may dismiss your case unless you've requested and received an extension. (D.C. Super. Court Dom. Rel. Rules, rule 4 (2022).)

Next Steps in Your D.C. Divorce

After you've filed and served the divorce papers, pay attention to the next steps needed to move your case along.

Responding to the Divorce Papers

Ordinarily, your spouse will have 21 days after receiving the complaint to serve you a response. (D.C. Super. Court Dom. Rel. Rules, rule 12(a)(1)(A) (2022).) If your case is uncontested, your spouse may file a "Consent Answer" to verify that there are no disputed issues and to request that the court set a date for an uncontested divorce hearing.

Otherwise, your spouse will usually reply with an "Answer" that agrees or disagrees with what you've stated or requested in the complaint. Your spouse could also file a "Counterclaim" with the answer.

If your spouse doesn't file any response in the time allowed, the judge might sign a default divorce decree that grants what you've requested in the complaint. But unlike default divorces in some states, the law in D.C. requires that you provide evidence at the default hearing to support your claims and requests. (D.C. Code § 16-919 (2022).)

Financial Disclosures

At some point during the divorce process, the judge may order you to provide a financial statement, laying out your income, other assets, expenses, and debts. (D.C. Super. Court Dom. Rel. Rules, rule 26(a)(1)(A)(iii) (2022).) This information helps the judge make decisions about issues such as alimony, child support, and distribution of property.

It's a good idea to gather as much of this information in advance as you can, because it's important to be as thorough as possible in completing these forms. You must be totally honest, because a spouse who fails to disclose all the requested information could face penalties, such as fines and possibly jail time.

Parenting Education Course

If you and your spouse have minor children, the judge may order both of you to complete in a parenting education course. These courses are often conducted online, to facilitate attendance. Classes typically address issues such as:

  • children's needs as the family changes
  • the effects of separation and divorce on children, and
  • common ways children react to the break-up of their family.

You can contact the CIC to find approved course providers.

Finalizing Your D.C. Divorce

In D.C., you will need to attend a court hearing to get your final divorce, even when you have an uncontested case. You and your spouse may sign and file a "Joint Request For Uncontested Divorce Hearing," which simply asks the court to schedule a hearing and confirms that both of you consent to the entry of a divorce decree.

Even when divorces start out as contested cases, most couples manage to settle all of their issues at some point during the process, usually with the help of their lawyers, a mediator, or both. But it can still take quite a while to get to that point, depending on the complexity of the issues. If you aren't able to reach a complete settlement, however, you'll have to go to trial. After hearing testimony and reviewing other evidence, a judge will make a decision on any issues that remain unresolved. This is by far the longest and costliest route to obtaining your divorce judgment, and can take up to a year or more.

It's important to note that, ordinarily, your divorce won't actually be final when the judge signs your divorce decree. The decree isn't effective until 30 days later. (D.C. Code § 16-920 (2022).) The reason for the delay is that either spouse may appeal the divorce decree within that 30-day period. However, if both you and your spouse want the divorce decree to be effective immediately, you may file a "Joint Waiver of Appeal of Divorce Order/Judgment" to give up your right to appeal.

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