While many of us were struggling to keep recent New Year’s resolutions going, new laws went into effect on January 26, 2024, that altered the landscape of divorce in the District of Columbia.

The changes were in three areas of the law: (1) simplifying the grounds for divorce or legal separation; (2) adding “physical, emotional, or financial abuse by one party against the other” to the list of relevant factors the Court considers when awarding alimony and dividing property; and (3) adding pendente lite use and possession of a family home to the list of relief that may be awarded by a Court. More on each below:

I. Divorce Grounds

Gone now is the obligation to live separate and apart (i.e. in separate rooms within the same household, or in separate residences) from one’s spouse for at least six or even 12 months (i.e. six months is the separation is mutual and voluntary; 12 months if not) before a spouse is entitled to a divorce. Now a spouse need only affirm that he, she, or they “no longer wish to remain married” in order for them to be eligible for a divorce.

What does this mean practically speaking? If you have resolved all issues relating to your marriage, you are now entitled to a divorce with no waiting period in the District. If you have not yet resolved all issues, as soon as you do or the Court does for you, you will receive a divorce with no further waiting period. The divorce waiting period is no longer a cause for delay.

In times’ past, that delay created opportunities for one or both spouses to engage in conduct designed to exert pressure or leverage on the other spouse (i.e. refusing to move out; spending marital funds during the separation period to the detriment of both parties; engaging in litigation abuse).

II. Physical, Emotional, and Financial Abuse Now Must Be Considered When Awarding Alimony and Equitably Distributing Property

In order for the Court to award alimony and distribute marital property in D.C., the Court must review and consider “all relevant factors” in order to arrive at an equitable, just, and reasonable result.

Previously, the statutes relating to alimony and property distribution listed nine and twelve separate factors the Court must consider. Only one of those factors within each statute related to marital conduct– i.e., the circumstances that led to the estrangement of the parties. Now, that factor has been expanded such that it reads: [t]he circumstances that contributed to the estrangement of the parties, including the history of physical, emotional, or financial abuse by one party against the other.”

Why is this significant? Because reasonable minds can disagree on what precisely contributed to the estrangement of spouses. Was it the drinking/drug use? The foul/demeaning language? The job that took he, she, or they away from the family too often? The affair? Acts of abuse?

Oftentimes, the Court, or advocates for the parties, will limit the cause for the estrangement of the marriage to the inciting event(s) that led to the separation. Doing so may very well (intentionally or unintentionally) overlook years of troubling conduct. Adding the history of physical, emotional, or financial abuse to the list of relevant factors ensures the Court will hear about such conduct, if it happened, and be able to augment awards of alimony or property to redress wrongs perpetrated during the marriage.

III. Adding Pendente Lite Use and Possession

Pendente lite relief is awarded only for so long as the divorce remains pending before the Court. The purpose of it is to maintain some form of status quo until the case can be resolved or decided by the Court.

Typically, pendente lite (literally meaning “awaiting the litigation” in Latin) relief comes in one or more of the following forms: (1) temporary alimony or child support; (2) enjoining the disposition of marital property, or sequestering or assigning property or income; and (3) temporary awards of physical custody/access.

Now the Court can also “award exclusive use of the family home or any other dwelling unit which is available for use as a residence pendente lite to either of the parties…, without regard to the respective interests of the parties in the property.”

Why is this important? Most often, the family home is titled in joint names, which means both spouses have equal rights to use and enjoyment, and neither can compel the other to leave. This new enactment empowers the Court to compel one of the spouses to leave the family home pendente lite if so doing serves the family’s best interests.

What would be sufficient to serve the family’s best interests? Needing to insulate the children from parental conflict. Needing to insulate one of the spouses from conduct that does not rise to the level of abuse, but nonetheless is counter-productive to the health of that spouse. This is just another tool available to the Courts to maintain the health and safety of the family while the divorce process matriculates.

For more information, contact Erik at 301-657-0725 or [email protected].