Immediate Divorce Filings Now Possible with Big Changes to D.C. Divorce Law

By | Published On: February 12, 2024

The District of Columbia Council has recently passed some significant amendments to District of Columbia divorce law, marking a substantial shift in how divorce cases will now be handled. These kinds of changes are rare, which makes it all the more important to understand them if you’re considering divorce in 2024.

Depending on your individual circumstances, the implications of these new laws will have distinct pros and cons, which you should discuss with an experienced family law attorney who can provide guidance based on your situation.

Here’s a brief summary of three key changes to the D.C. divorce law to keep in mind:

Grounds for Divorce

Historically, D.C. law required spouses to live “separate and apart” for a specific duration — either six months or one year, depending on the circumstances — before they could file for divorce. This requirement was in place to establish “grounds for divorce,” a legally acceptable reason to divorce.

But significant changes have taken effect as of January 26, 2024. Now, the simple decision that one or both spouses “no longer wish to remain married” is sufficient grounds for divorce. This means a spouse can file for divorce at any time, regardless of whether they’ve separated from their spouse. The waiting period has been eliminated, allowing for immediate action if either party decides the marriage should end.

If you suspect your spouse is planning to file for divorce, it’s a good idea to talk with a family law attorney about your options so you don’t get caught off guard.

History of Abuse

When spouses divorce, the court will equitably divide certain property acquired during the marriage. (Note that equitably doesn’t necessarily mean equally.) The D.C. Code lists many factors the court will consider in determining how to equitably divide such property, for example, the length of the marriage, the needs of the parties and each party’s contributions to the marriage.

Effective January 26, 2024, the court must also now consider a critical new factor: any “history of physical, emotional, or financial abuse by one party against the other.”

This inclusion acknowledges a broad spectrum of abuse in a marriage, which may further complicate cases that go before the court, but also allows this conduct to be examined when/if a divorce goes to trial.

The consideration of abuse also extends to alimony decisions, affecting whether one party is required to pay such support to the other and, if so, the amount and duration.

If you believe a history of abuse may apply to your case, consider consulting with an attorney well-versed in the rules of evidence. This expertise can be invaluable in developing strategies to document conflicts with your spouse as they arise to ensure that your experiences are accurately represented and considered in court.

Temporary Use of Residence

With the recent changes, the court can now award a new type of temporary relief to either party once a divorce case is filed. Previously, temporary relief was generally limited to covering financial support and custody arrangements. Now, the court may temporarily grant one party the exclusive right to use the family home or any other residential property available during the divorce process, regardless of the respective interests of the parties in the property.

Essentially, this update means that the court now has the authority to give a spouse exclusive use of the residence while the case is pending, even if they don’t own the property. This is a significant change in D.C.’s law that will have substantial implications in some cases (as we’ve seen in neighboring jurisdictions that already have similar laws, like Maryland). If you’re facing divorce or separation, it may be advantageous to consult with an attorney experienced in both D.C. and Maryland law who can provide insights into how these changes might impact your case. (Our divorce attorneys at Tucker cover both jurisdictions.)

The new changes impacting property division, alimony, and temporary relief also apply to legal separations and the termination of domestic partnerships, not just divorce. Domestic partnerships are a special legal status registered under DC Code § 32-702(a) or recognized under DC Code § 32-702(i).

Olivia Scott is a family law attorney at Tucker. If you have questions about how the recent changes in D.C. divorce law may impact your situation, our family law attorneys are here to help. Contact us to schedule a consultation.

Learn more about the Tucker Family Law Team