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Child Custody

Information on this web page is general in nature. Descriptions of laws and court procedures are abbreviated. This information is not intended as legal advice. If you do not understand this information or if you need legal advice you should see an attorney.

Iowa Law Overview

In Iowa, if a couple (married or unmarried) has children in the family under the age of eighteen, the courts will play a role in making decisions related to child custody.  

Legal Custody

“Custody” or “legal custody” means the rights and responsibilities parents have towards their child.  Rights and responsibilities of legal custody include making decisions about the child's legal status, medical care, education, safety, extracurricular activities, religious instruction, and other major life decisions.  See Iowa Code section 598.1(5).

Joint or Sole Legal Custody

A court may award joint or sole legal custody.  Joint custody means the legal responsibility of a minor child is shared equally between the parents, and neither parent has legal custodial rights superior to those of the other parent.  Joint custody does not necessarily mean that the child must spend equal time with or live with both parents.  See Iowa Code section 598.1(3). 

Sole legal custody means that only one parent has the legal responsibility of a minor child.  Sole legal custody is granted if a court determines that it would be better for just one parent to make the decisions for the child.

Iowa law requires that the court must consider the best interest of the child and order a custody arrangement that will give the child the chance for maximum continuing physical and emotional contact with both parents after the parents have separated and dissolved the marriage, and which will encourage parents to share the rights and responsibilities of raising the child unless physical harm or significant emotional harm to the child, other children, or a parent is likely to occur.  See Iowa Code section 598.41.

How can I get joint custody?

If either party requests joint custody, the court must consider granting joint custody.  See Iowa Code section 598.41(2)(a).

When determining the joint custody arrangement that is best for the child, the court must consider: 

  • Whether each parent would be a suitable custodian for the child 
  • Whether the psychological and emotional need and development of the child will suffer due to lack of active contact with and attention from both parents
  • Whether the parents can communicate with each other concerning the child's needs 
  • Whether both parents have actively cared for the child before and since the separation
  • Whether each parent can support the other's relationship with the child 
  • Whether the custody arrangement is in accord with the child's wishes or whether the child has strong opposition, taking into account the child's age and maturity
  • Whether one or both parents agree or are opposed to joint custody
  • The geographic proximity of the parents 
  • Whether the safety of the child, other children, or the other parent will be jeopardized by an award of joint custody or by unsupervised or unrestricted supervision
  • Whether a history of domestic abuse exists
  • Whether a parent has allowed a person custody or control of, or unsupervised access to, a child after knowing that person is a registered sex offender. See Iowa Code section 598.41(3).

If the court finds a history of domestic abuse exists, a rebuttable presumption against awarding joint custody exists. See Iowa Code section 598.41(1)(b).

What about the physical placement of my children?

After the court makes a decision about legal custody, the court will decide on the physical care arrangement.  "Physical placement” refers to the parental home where the child will live on a regular basis. The parent living with the child is the "custodial parent” and the other parent is the "non-custodial” parent.  When a child has been placed within your physical care, you are responsible for the day-to-day decisions that affect the child.

The court may also allow the parties to have “joint physical care.”  Under this arrangement, both parties share equal and regular care for the child.  Similar to joint custody, neither parent has physical care rights superior to the other parent.  See Iowa Code sections 598.1(4) and 598.41(5)(a).

If the court awards joint custody to both parents, the court may award joint physical care upon the request of either parent.  See Iowa Code section 598.41(5)(a).

What is mediation?

Before awarding custody or placement, the court may require the parties to participate in mediation. Mediation is a method of alternative dispute resolution that allows the parties to work together with a neutral third party to come to a resolution outside of court.  The cost of the mediation is the responsibility of the parties. Mediation services are available throughout Iowa.  See Iowa Code section 598.7.

How are custody or visitation orders enforced?

If a parent fails to comply with the provisions of a custody or visitation order and the other parent wants the court to enforce those provisions, the parent must file a court action against the other parent.  If a party is found to have violated a court order, the court can find the party in contempt and may require the party serve up to 30 days in jail.  The court also has alternative measures to try to gain the party’s compliance with an order.  See Iowa Code section 598.23.

How are custody or visitation orders modified?

Custody and visitation orders may be modified if the court finds that a substantial change of circumstances has occurred. A party must apply to the court for a modification of an order. When determining if there is a substantial change in circumstances, the court shall consider numerous factors, including: changes in the employment, earning capacity, income, or resources of a party, changes in the physical, mental, or emotional health of a party, changes in the residence of a party, or remarriage of a party.  See Iowa Code section 598.21C.

Do we need a court order if we have already agreed on custody terms?

Yes.  Even if you and your spouse agree to the terms of your divorce and custody matters, the court must still review and approve those terms.  Custody terms are not final until a judge signs the final “decree of dissolution of marriage.”

Do I need an attorney in divorce action with custody issues?

While representation is not required in a divorce action with custody issues, divorces involving children can be complicated. You may want to contact an attorney to help you with all or some of the divorce process. You may miss important issues or fail to anticipate the consequences of your lawsuits.  For these reasons people who are contemplating divorce should consult with an attorney. 

What court forms do I use?

If you represent yourself in a divorce case and you have minor or dependent children, you must use the court-approved forms in Chapter 17 of the Iowa Court Rules. The forms are available free of charge on our Court Forms page. If you do not understand how to use the forms, talk to an attorney. Clerks of court and court staff cannot give you legal advice.

Before you file a divorce with children or respond to a petition for divorce with children, review the Guide for Representing Yourself in an Iowa Divorce (PDF). 

You must file electronically unless you get permission from the court to file in paper.  If you are not already, you will need to become a registered user of the Iowa eFile system. 

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