If you are contemplating a child custody matter in the District of Columbia, understanding child custody factors in D.C. is essential to navigating the legal process. In custody, as with other family law matters, you and your co–parent are generally free to make an arrangement that works for you—so long as the court finds your agreement to be “in the best interest of the child.” In most cases, the court readily approves a child custody agreement made by the parents. After all, no one understands your children, their needs, and their schedules like you do.
Of course, sometimes, parents are unable to agree on child custody, and when that happens, the court must make a determination. All states and the District of Columbia decide custody based on “the best interest of the child,” and have specific factors that a court must consider in deciding child custody. The factors vary somewhat from jurisdiction, but all are focused on meeting the needs of the child.
If you are wondering how to get full custody of a child, or who is more likely to get custody of a child, learning about the child custody factors in D.C.—also known as the “best interest” factors—can help you understand what to expect in your custody matter.
There are no legal requirements to get custody of a child, per se; it’s not a situation in which you can tick boxes on a checklist to show that you deserve custody, or that your co-parent doesn’t. The analysis is broader and more holistic than that. Courts consider individual child custody factors in D.C. as part of the “big picture” of who will give the child the care and nurturing they need.
That said, there are some important things to know about child custody determinations in D.C. The court begins with a rebuttable presumption that joint custody is in the best interest of the child, EXCEPT if the court finds there is evidence of intrafamily violence, child abuse, or child neglect. Then there is a rebuttable presumption that joint custody is NOT in a child’s best interest.
A “rebuttable presumption” is a legal position that the court takes, but can be persuaded to change, if one party presents evidence to rebut the presumption. For instance, the court might initially presume that joint custody is in a child’s best interests, but decide otherwise when presented with evidence that the other parent routinely abuses drugs and leaves the young child unsupervised for hours.
The D.C. child custody factors are found in § 16-914 of the Code of the District of Columbia. While seventeen specific factors are enumerated, the statute also states that the court “shall consider all relevant factors, including but not limited to” the ones set forth in the statute. (Take note of the use of the word “shall.” That language in a law generally requires a person or entity to do something, as opposed to “may,” which simply allows something to be done but does not compel it.) In other words, a court must consider any factor presented to it that could affect a child’s interests in a custody case.
The child custody factors in D.C. as listed in Section 16-914 are:
(A) the wishes of the child as to his or her custodian, where practicable;
(B) the wishes of the child’s parent or parents as to the child’s custody;
(C) 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;
(D) the child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community;
(E) the mental and physical health of all individuals involved;
(F) evidence of an intrafamily offense as defined in § 16-1001(8);
(G) the capacity of the parents to communicate and reach shared decisions affecting the child’s welfare;
(H) the willingness of the parents to share custody;
(I) the prior involvement of each parent in the child’s life;
(J) the potential disruption of the child’s social and school life;
(K) the geographic proximity of the parental homes as this relates to the practical considerations of the child’s residential schedule;
(L) the demands of parental employment;
(M) the age and number of children;
(N) the sincerity of each parent’s request;
(O) the parent’s ability to financially support a joint custody arrangement;
(P) the impact on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibilities, and medical assistance; and
(Q) the benefit to the parents.
As you can see, there is no reference to the sex or gender of a parent in the statute; D.C. law does not automatically favor, or disfavor, a parent based on their gender.
Every child custody case is different, and it’s best to speak to a D.C. child custody attorney to get answers to questions about your unique situation. However, there are some general questions we are frequently asked about child custody in the District of Columbia.
In D.C., both parents are considered joint natural guardians of their minor children, with equal rights and responsibility for the children’s care, support, education, and welfare. Neither parent has priority over the other absent a court order to the contrary.
If the court has entered an order regarding custody or access (visitation), you will need to show a material change of circumstances that affects your child’s well-being since the existing order was entered to have the order modified. That includes an existing order that incorporates a custody agreement between you and your co-parent. The bottom line is that modifying custody is often difficult, and it is better to get an order that works for your family from the outset than to try to modify it later.
The court may order supervised visitation if it has a reasonable basis to believe that a child has been neglected or abused by a parent. If necessary for the child’s protection, the court may deny a parent visitation or custody altogether.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the outcome of your child custody matter will shape your relationship with your children for years to come. You should do everything in your power to remain as involved in their daily lives as possible. An attorney who understands the child custody factors in D.C. and how to present evidence to a judge is essential.
This is especially true if your spouse or co-parent is represented. If you have concerns that your child is not safe with the other parent, or that the other parent might have harmful evidence against you, you should also have representation to protect your interests—and your child.
To learn more about the child custody factors in D.C., contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to schedule a consultation.