Child Custody in the District of Columbia


Area of Law: 

When a couple divorces and there is a minor child involved, the divorce decree will specify who has physical custody as well as legal custody of the child. Physical custody determines where and with whom the child will live. Legal custody specifies who has the legal right to make important decisions about the child related to issues such as education, religion, medical issues, and discipline. Spouses often reach an agreement regarding child custody on their own, but if they do not, the court will intervene and establish custody arrangements based on the best interests of the child.


There are typically several different custody arrangements that may be made for children of divorced parents. In most cases, courts will award physical custody to one parent with whom the child will live most of the time. The parent with physical custody, or the custodial parent, often shares legal custody, or the right to make decisions regarding the child, with the non-custodial parent. Many child custody arrangements involve joint custody in which the child spends a relatively equal amount of time with each parent.


In the District of Columbia, a court will enter an order for any custody arrangement that is agreed to by both of the parents, unless there is clear and convincing evidence indicating that the arrangement is not in the best interest of the minor child. DC courts will make custody decisions based primarily on the best interest of the child. The court will make a determination as to the legal custody and the physical custody of a child. A custody order may include sole legal custody, sole physical custody, joint legal custody, joint physical custody, or any other custody arrangement the court may determine is in the best interest of the child. For a summary of child custody laws in the District of Columbia, go to:


District of Columbia courts consider various factors when awarding child custody. Under DC law, the standards applied by the courts when considering child custody awards include the following:


  • The wishes of the child pertaining to his or her custodian, where practicable
  • The wishes of the child's parent or parents as to the child's custody
  • The interaction and interrelationship of the child with his or her parent or parents, his or her siblings, and any other person who may emotionally or psychologically affect the child's best interest
  • The child's adjustment to his or her home, school, and community
  • The mental and physical health of all individuals involved
  • Evidence of an intrafamily offense
  • The capacity of the parents to communicate and reach shared decisions affecting the child's welfare
  • The willingness of the parents to share custody
  • The prior involvement of each parent in the child's life
  • The potential disruption of the child's social and school life
  • The geographic proximity of the parental homes as it relates to the practical considerations of the child's residential schedule
  • The demands of parental employment
  • The age and number of children
  • The sincerity of each parent's request
  • The parent's ability to financially support a joint custody arrangement
  • The impact of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibilities and medical assistance
  • The benefit to the parents


According to, a child custody award in the District of Columbia may be modified or terminated based on either the motion of one or both of the parents or on the court's own motion if the court determines that there has been a substantial and material change in circumstances and that the modification or termination is in the best interest of the child.