Child Custody in the District of Columbia

For most parents, issues relating to their children are some of the most difficult to resolve. As a parent, you may be concerned not only about your children’s well-being, but about how the custodial and time-sharing arrangements will affect your relationship with them.

At Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield, we understand the depths of your concern because we are family law attorneys, and we are also parents. As parents, we know that the issue of child custody and visitation is much more than just a legal issue. As experienced family law attorneys, our priority is achieving your goals in your child custody matter.

Physical and Legal Custody

It is important to understand that the term “child custody” really encompasses two concepts: physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody refers to the child’s living arrangements and how much time is spent with each parent on a regular basis; legal custody refers to which parent has the authority to make important decisions regarding the child’s life, including those regarding medical care, education, and religious upbringing.

Both physical and legal custody may be sole or joint. In the District of Columbia (“D.C.”), joint custody is common, as it is generally viewed by experts to be in a child’s best interests to have a strong, involved and ongoing relationship with both parents. However, there are always exceptions, and joint physical custody arrangements may not necessarily give both parents exactly equal time with the children; courts have the authority to create a variety of custody arrangements.

In fact, law in the District of Columbia contains a “presumption of joint custody” which expresses the preference that both parents share parenting responsibilities for their children. That said, judges themselves are quick to point out that joint custody does not necessarily mean equal custody.

How Child Custody is Determined in the District of Columbia

As a general rule, parents are in the ideal position to know what will be best for their children. If you and your child’s other parent are able to reach your own agreement on physical and legal custody, D.C. courts will generally approve your agreement unless it clearly appears to be contrary to the best interest of the children. Frankly, there are many advantages to reaching a custody agreement outside of the courts because you have a deeper understanding of your family’s needs and schedules, and you have the flexibility to customize an arrangement to those needs in a way that a court cannot.

However, doing this on your own can be quite difficult if you and the other child’s parent share different views of what is best for your child. In that circumstance, and if you are unable to reach agreement on your own, you may still be able to do so outside of a courtroom with the help of your family law attorneys, or through the use of processes like mediation or Collaborative practice.

Child custody decisions have significant impacts on everyone's life. Therefore, if you cannot reach agreement about child custody matters, the court will make a determination based on what it deems to be in the best interest of the children. When doing so, the court will consider several factors , including:

  • The child’s wishes regarding custody, where practicable
  • The wishes of the child’s parents regarding custody
  • The child’s interactions with parents and siblings and others close to the child
  • The child’s adjustment to home, school, and community
  • The mental and physical health of all individuals involved
  • Evidence of an intrafamily offense (such as child abuse or intimate partner violence)
  • The capacity of the parents to communicate and reach shared decisions about 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 geographical proximity of the parents’ 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 parents’ ability to financially support a joint custody arrangement
  • The impact on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibilities, and medical assistance
  • The benefit to the parents

This is not an exhaustive list and the court may also consider any relevant factor not listed above. Moreover, if the court concludes that there has been an intrafamily offense by one parent, that parent cannot get custody or visitation unless they can prove it would be in the child’s best interest. In some cases, supervised visitation may be utilized.

Complex Child Custody Matters

Unfortunately, child custody matters can become contentious even under ordinary circumstances. However, when complicating factors are presented, such as domestic violence, substance abuse, questions regarding the fitness of one or both parents, relocation of a parent to another state or country, or special needs of the children, it is critical that you have an experienced advocate to guide you and to represent you in court, if needed. Your attorney must understand all of the unique circumstances of your case, have detailed knowledge of how the courts work and view particular custody issues, and have detailed knowledge of the applicable law. When necessary, we will also involve outside professionals such as therapists and custody evaluators to support your goals and strengthen your custody position.

Child Custody Modification, Relocation, and International Custody Issues

Perhaps more than most other jurisdictions, people are frequently moving into and out of the District of Columbia. A parent’s need to relocate from the area may result in the need to modify an existing child custody order. To do so, the parent seeking to modify the custody order must either obtain the other parent’s consent to change the custody arrangement or demonstrate to the court that there has been a material change of circumstances since the time of the prior custody order and that this change will affect the best interest of the child.

Washington, D.C., as the seat of the federal government, also has a significant population of foreign nationals who may become involved in child custody issues within the District. Issues frequently arise in which one parent wishes to relocate to another country with the children. These cases require special knowledge of not only District of Columbia family law but international family law.

Our attorneys have decades of experience dealing with the unique aspects of D.C. child custody law, including modification of custody, parental relocation, complex custody issues, and international child custody issues. There is no such thing as a typical custody case, but our child custody attorneys are uniquely equipped to advocate effectively on behalf of their clients in even the most complex and contentious cases.

How We Help with Your Custody Matter

Custody disputes are legal matters with a deeply emotional component, for which our clients need clear guidance, effective advocacy, and personal support. At Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield, we combine extensive experience in divorce and custody matters with a strategic, analytical approach to achieving our clients’ goals.

Unlike many child custody attorneys who have limited trial experience, we regularly litigate family law disputes. Although we strive to facilitate agreement whenever possible, we are equally at ease advocating for our clients at trial as negotiating on their behalf in a conference room. Our attorneys are known for their strategic, tactical and analytical approach to pursuing clients’ goals.

We invite you to contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to schedule a consultation to discuss your concerns and learn how we can help you with your custody matter.