Washington D.C. allows for uncontested divorces when couples have resolved all their divorce-related issues, including:
Washington D.C. divorce requirements aren’t overly burdensome. The first condition you have to meet concerns residency. In order to file for divorce, one of the spouses must be a bona fide D.C. resident for a least six months immediately prior to starting the divorce action. (DC Code §16–902.)
The second condition is that you must have grounds (legal basis) for the divorce. There are only two grounds for divorce in D.C., both of which are considered “no-fault”, meaning they don’t assign blame to either spouse. In each, the couple must be living apart from each other. The first ground allows you to file for divorce when both spouses have mutually and voluntarily lived separate and apart without cohabitation for a period of six months immediately prior to the commencement of the divorce action. “Without cohabitation” means the spouses haven’t had sexual relations with each other.
The second ground arises when both spouses have lived separate and apart without cohabitation for a period of one year immediately prior to commencing the divorce action. Notice that this ground omits the words “mutually and voluntarily”, leading to the conclusion that the separation occurred against one of the spouse’s wishes. (DC Code §16–904.)
There are three basic steps to initiating an uncontested divorce. D.C. requires you to submit a “Complaint for Divorce”. (D.C. DR Rule 3.) The complaint provides the court with information about your marriage, as well as the “relief” you’re seeking (what you’re asking the court to do for you). The spouse filing for divorce is the “plaintiff”; the other spouse is the “defendant.”
Next, you have to file the complaint with the court. You do this at the D.C. Superior Court Family Court Central Intake Center. When the complaint is filed, the court clerk will issue a “summons” (notification of the divorce action, to be given to your spouse). Be aware that the court charges fees for filing your divorce. However, if you believe these fees would pose a hardship for you, you can ask the court to waive them. You’d do this by filing an “Application To Proceed Without Prepayment Of Costs, Fees, Or Security”. (D.C. DR Rule 54-II.)
Finally, the filed complaint and summons must be “served” on (delivered to) your spouse. D.C. court rules provide a number of ways to do this. (D.C. DR Rule 4.) The two most common are personal service and service by mail. With personal service, generally anyone (other than you) over the age of 18 can deliver a copy of the divorce papers to your spouse, or leave the papers with someone who lives at your spouse’s home and is of suitable age and discretion.
The person who serves the papers has to file an affidavit (sworn statement) with the court, indicating that the papers were served. If the papers weren’t delivered directly to your spouse, the affidavit has to describe the person served, including that individual’s age. Obviously this provision is meant to assure the court that the person accepting the documents was of “suitable age and discretion”. (D.C. DR Rule 4(h).)
Service by mail consists of mailing the divorce papers to your spouse by certified mail, return receipt requested. You’ll file an affidavit of service with the court when you receive the signed return receipt card back from the post office.
A spouse has to file a response to the complaint within 20 days of being served. If that’s not done, the court can enter a "default", and the divorce can proceed without that spouse's participation.
The easiest road to a quick divorce in D.C. is for the defendant spouse to file a “Consent Answer,” agreeing with everything you stated in your complaint. Once that’s done, you and your spouse can sign a form called a “Joint Request For Uncontested Divorce Hearing.” This form means exactly what it says. You’re both telling the court the divorce is uncontested, and asking the court to give you a date for your final divorce hearing. The court will then mail you a notice of your hearing date.
Although you and your spouse can enter into an oral agreement resolving your marital issues, you should consider memorializing the terms in a written divorce settlement agreement (sometimes referred to as a “property settlement agreement” or a “marital settlement agreement”). This agreement is a contract between you and your spouse, and is binding on both of you.
If you have young children, or if there’s a significant financial component to your agreement, it often pays to have attorneys or a qualified mediator help you negotiate and prepare the agreement. Agreements drawn up with this type of assistance almost always go into greater detail than oral agreements. This can be a big plus, because it reduces the likelihood of conflict down the road about the meaning of a particular term of the agreement. This can ultimately save you time, money, and anxiety.
Usually, only the plaintiff spouse needs to attend the divorce hearing. But if the defendant spouse is the only one who’s been a resident of D.C. for the required six months, that spouse may need to attend the hearing to confirm residency. Try to get to court early, to familiarize yourself with your surroundings and check in with the court personnel.
Uncontested divorce hearings are usually brief. The judge will likely ask you a few questions, just to confirm you’ve met all the requirements for finalizing the divorce. If you have a written settlement agreement, you should give it to the judge at the hearing, and request that it be incorporated into the final divorce order. That way either spouse can go back to the court for enforcement if someone isn’t abiding by the agreement’s terms.
Something else to note. In D.C., the divorce doesn’t become final until 30 days after the court stamps the divorce order as “entered on docket” (usually within a few days of the hearing). That’s because the law gives you 30 days to appeal the order. But because you’ve settled all your issues, you and your spouse can file a “Joint Waiver Of Appeal Of Divorce Order/Judgment”, which asks the court to dispense with the appeal waiting period and finalize the divorce.
This article makes reference to several forms. You can find them on the D.C. Courts website.
One final thing to note. Even if your divorce started off as contested, there’s nothing to prevent you from settling your differences at any point up to the time you’ve had a trial and the judge makes a decision. In fact, the vast majority of divorce cases do eventually settle.