Iowa Child Custody Laws

Iowa Child Custody

You should know about the following important information if you’re engaged in a child custody action in Iowa.

What are the Types of Child Custody in Iowa?

Iowa courts have several options when deciding what kind of child custody to award in Iowa.  Each situation will vary based on the type of custody arrangement parents want and what is best for the child.  The types of custody include:

Legal Custody

Legal custody determines the legal rights and responsibilities of both parents. According to Iowa laws, that includes “decision making affecting the child’s legal status, medical care, education, extracurricular activities, and religious instruction.”

The court can award joint custody or sole legal custody.

Joint legal custody is the most frequent type of legal custody awarded.  Under this arrangement, both parents have equal legal custodial rights.  Joint legal custody is preferred because it encourages both parents to share the rights and responsibilities of child-rearing and allows a child to maintain a relationship with both parents.  When a parent requests joint legal custody, Iowa Code requires that the court award joint legal custody unless it cites clear and convincing evidence that joint legal custody is unreasonable and not in the child’s best interest.

Sole legal custody is rarely awarded to a parent except when there is a history of domestic abuse between the parties.  However, allegations of domestic abuse do not justify an award of sole legal custody.  Domestic abuse must be demonstrated by one or more of the following:

  • Commencement of a domestic abuse assault action
  • The issuance of a protective order, court order, or consent agreement
  • The issuance of an emergency protective order that holds a parent in contempt for violating a protective order
  • A peace officer responding to a report of alleged domestic abuse
  • A conviction of domestic abuse assault.

A court may also award sole legal custody if there is clear and convincing evidence that joint legal custody is unreasonable and not in the children’s best interest.  This might be the case when a noncustodial parent suffers from depression, substance abuse, suicidal tendencies, or is a danger to themselves and their children.

Physical Custody

Physical custody is also referred to as physical care.  It is the process of determining where and with whom a child will live.

A child custody order may grant primary physical care to one parent or allow both parents to share physical custody

Sharing physical custody is legally referred to as joint physical custody or shared physical care. Under joint physical care, the child lives with both parents at different times.  Parents with joint physical care should spend a roughly equal amount of time with the child and should share equally in making decisions on all matters involving the child.  Sole physical custody is rare.

Courts look at the historical caregiving arrangement for the child between the parties, and the parent’s ability to communicate and show mutual respect.  Before issuing a custody order, the judge will also consider the similarities and differences between the parents’ approach to daily routine care of the child and other similar factors relevant to the child’s best interest.

If the court decides to award joint physical care, it can affect child support, public benefits and the tax filing status, such as Head of Household versus Single filing status, or eligibility for important tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.

With primary physical custody, a child mainly lives with one parent, even if the parents have joint legal custody. The noncustodial parent is granted visitation unless there are compelling reasons not to do so.

When multiple children are involved, the court sometimes awards split physical custody.  In this arrangement, each parent has primary care for one or more children in this arrangement. This custody arrangement is rare in Iowa because judges dislike separating siblings.

Custody laws do not consider a parent’s sexual orientation to limit or restrict custody or visitation.

Mandatory Parenting Class

Iowa courts often require all divorcing parents with children to complete a mandatory parenting class before granting a divorce. This requirement helps parents and children deal with the trauma of divorce and separation. Both parents must complete this requirement unless the court grants a waiver.

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Determining Child Custody in Iowa

There are several factors Iowa courts will examine if one parent is awarded primary physical care.  Those factors are sometimes weighted differently.  A judge has considerable leeway to factor in those most important to a case.  The factors include:

  • The child’s age, maturity, and mental and physical health.
  • The child’s emotional, social, moral, material, and educational needs.
  • Facts about each parent, including age, stability, mental and physical health, and character.
  • The interest and ability of each parent to provide for the child’s needs, such as medical care, health insurance, daily transportation, child care, and other similar needs.
  • The parents’ ability to communicate with each other for the child’s benefit;
  • A history of domestic violence or child abuse, if any.  Courts presume against granting custody to a parent with a history of domestic abuse under Iowa law.
  • The relationship between each parent and the child.
  • The relationship between the child and siblings.
  • The effect on the child if the court continues or changes the custody arrangement.
  • The home environment where the child will live.
  • Stability, defined as whether one party frequently moves while the other party has lived in the same place for a longer time.
  • Where the child wants to live if the child has the capacity and maturity to express an opinion on this.  The child’s wishes are not always considered.
  • Recommendation of an independent person who investigated both parties about who should get primary physical care, if an investigation took place.
  • Recommendation of a guardian ad litem representing the child.
  • Are there any other options available for physical care?
  • If awarding custody to one parent would separate siblings.
  • Any other relevant information.

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What is the Iowa Best Interests of the Child Standard?

Although several things are considered when awarding custody,  The most important of these is a question of the child’s best interests based on that decision.  How much weight a court places on each factor varies on a case-by-case basis.  Generally, courts place significant weight on a child’s emotional stability.

However, a judge does not consider the sex or gender of a parent or a parent’s geographic location in making decisions about physical custody.

What to Know About Parenting Plans

Parenting plans are detailed instructions about physical and legal custody.  In some cases, parents can create their own child custody agreement or use a mediator, but it must follow Iowa child custody guidelines and will need to be approved by the court.  The best interest of the child is always considered first when crafting a parenting plan to address custody and visitation issues.

The more detailed the plan that covers many parenting time situations, the fewer chances there are for a custody dispute and confusion later.

This is an important legal agreement, so it’s often a good idea to retain an experienced attorney familiar with child custody laws to help draft a plan.

Parenting plans should contain the following:

  • Physical custody and parenting time, including where the child lives and the number of overnight visits for each parent.
  • Legal custody and which parent is responsible for certain situations.
  • Child support payment amounts and recourse if a parent falls behind.
  • Exchanging children, including when, where, and time of day.
  • Transporting children for visitation.
  • Each parent’s access to records and information.
  • Adjustments when the children reach certain ages or when other changes occur.
  • Custody during holiday and school break schedules.
  • Vacation and travel approval and advance notifications.
  • A child’s ability to communicate with both parents.
  • Communication between parents, such as having a preferred method (calls, emails, texts) and trying to avoid communicating through the children.
  • Levels of contact with other family members and friends.
  • How are various expenses handled?  These could be related to school tuition, medical costs, school activities, hobbies, and recreational activities.
  • Children’s use of technology and online activities.
  • Handling special needs for the children as they arise.
  • How to address child discipline and mental health issues.
  • Guidelines when a new partner is involved.
  • Grooming and dress guidelines (extreme haircuts, make-up, etc.)
  • Drinking or drug use in the presence of the children

What is supervised visitation?

Supervised visitation occurs when a third party must oversee the non-custodial parent’s visitation. A third party may be a relative or a friend or possibly assigned by the courts. It may be ordered where a parent poses potential harm or cannot properly care for the child.

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How Do I Modify an Iowa Custody or Visitation Order?

Family situations can change after a custody agreement is put in place.  If these changes create a material difference in circumstances, either parent can petition the court to modify a custody or visitation order.  Changes may include a possible move by one parent, changes in economic conditions, health issues, or drug, alcohol, or domestic abuse.  In all cases, the court will revert to the best interests of the child standard and also use many of the same factors that determined the original order.

Custody laws demand that you adhere to whatever order is in place to avoid violating the current agreement.  If this happens, you could be found in contempt of court and face possible sanctions and penalties.

Read More:  How to Prepare for a Divorce Hearing

Iowa Child Custody FAQs

Who has custody when a child is born to an unmarried mother?

The mother usually has custody of her child if she is not married when the child is born.

The mother can make decisions for the child and has the right to care for the child.  For this to change, a father must prove paternity either by acknowledging that he is the father by signing a Paternity Affidavit or birth certificate, or through DNA testing.

When paternity is acknowledged within a “reasonable” time after the birth of a child, both parents have an equal claim to custody until a court decides differently.

What if one parent refuses to allow visitation to the other parent?

If the custodial parent believes that the child will be in danger of abuse or neglect during visitation, they may have other options, such as setting up visits at the custodial parent’s home, or the home of a responsible third party.

Refusing to allow reasonable visitation can cause problems and contribute to deciding who gets custody when an order is issued.  This is the same in married and unmarried custody cases.

A parent should not refuse visitation because the other parent has not paid child support.  The courts do not favor this kind of behavior and may step in to correct the problem.  Support and custody issues are treated independently in Iowa.

Contact Iowa’s Child Support Recovery Unit if you need help collecting support.

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