Grounds for Divorce in D.C.

Learn about the divorce process in D.C. and whether the "grounds" for divorce really matter.

By , Attorney

The District of Columbia Is a No-Fault Divorce State

The District of Columbia is a no-fault jurisdiction, which means that judges do not require spouses filing for divorce to prove that one spouse's misconduct—like adultery or alcoholism—ended the marriage. There are two legally accepted grounds (or reasons) for divorce in D.C.:

  • both spouses have mutually and voluntarily lived separate and apart without cohabitation for at least six months before filing for divorce, or
  • both spouses have lived separate and apart without cohabitation for at least one year if one spouse disagreed with the separation. (D.C. Code Ann. § 16-904 (a).)

A judge will decide all major legal issues, like property division, child custody, child support, and alimony (spousal support), before granting your divorce. An "absolute divorce" terminates your marriage, and both spouses are free to marry someone else. If you'd like to maintain control over the divorce-related issues in your case, you and your spouse can create and submit a divorce settlement agreement. Before you bring it to the court, both spouses should hire independent attorneys to review the agreement and ensure it's appropriate.

Regardless of the grounds you allege, you must be a resident of D.C. for at least six months before you file for divorce. (D.C. Code Ann. § 16-902.) You can prove your residency to the judge by providing a copy of your driver's license, voter registration card, or income tax returns, which reflect your local address.

Living Separate and Apart

Each ground for divorce requires a couple to prove that they have been living separately and apart for a specific amount of time. But for some families, it's a challenge to pay rent for two homes.

Divorce can be expensive, and the court understands that sometimes it's not financially possible for couples to live at different addresses. If you can show that each of you has pursued separate lives and haven't shared a bed or meals, it will be enough to meet the grounds for a no-fault divorce. (D.C. Code Ann. § 16-904 (c).)

What if My Spouse Doesn't Want a Divorce?

In most no-fault divorce states, like Michigan, it doesn't matter if your spouse agrees to the divorce. But in D.C., if you've lived separate and apart for more than six months but less than one year, it will be your responsibility to demonstrate to the court that you and your spouse agreed to the separation. If you can't, you'll need to wait at least one year from the date of your separation before you can file for divorce.

Sometimes voluntary and mutual separation doesn't mean that you talked about and agreed to separate. For example, in one D.C. case, a wife denied agreeing to live separate and apart. Still, her husband introduced evidence that she filed for a divorce in Nevada just six months after they separated. This evidence was enough to convince the court that the separation was mutual, and a judge granted the divorce. (Jacobson v. Jacobson, 277 A.2d 280.)

What Is Legal Separation from Bed and Board?

A legal separation allows a court to decide all the same major legal issues as a divorce without terminating the marriage. Legal separation from bed and board may be the right decision for you if your religion prohibits divorce or if you have minor children and divorce isn't what's best for your family.

To obtain a legal separation, you'll need to show that both spouses agreed "mutually and voluntarily" to separate and live apart, or if you can't show that you agreed, you must show that you have lived separate and apart for at least one year. Like divorce, you'll need to demonstrate that you haven't cohabitated (meaning, having sexual relations) during the separation. (D.C. Code Ann. § 16-904 (b).)

Can I File for an Annulment?

It's a common misconception that you can ask for an annulment if you're married for a short time. An annulment ends the marriage, but instead of a divorce, it's like the marriage never happened. Like divorce and legal separation, there are specific, legal grounds for annulment, and you must be able to prove at least one of the following:

  • one spouse was already married to someone else at the time of your marriage
  • one spouse was legally insane at the time of your marriage
  • either spouse committed fraud or coerced the other to marry
  • either spouse was under the legal age limit to consent to marriage, or
  • either person was legally incapacitated at the time of the marriage and unable to consent. (D.C. Code Ann. § 16-904 (d).)

The spouse requesting the annulment has the responsibility of proving the annulment grounds to the court. To be successful, you'll need to introduce witness testimony or documentary evidence (or both.) For example, if you're alleging that you were underage when you married, you'll need to produce a copy of your marriage license and your birth certificate to prove how old you were at the time of the wedding.

If you're considering filing for a divorce in D.C., speak with an experienced family law attorney before you file.

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