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Eugene Nassif

Are you a parent who is wondering what a child custody arrangement will look like with the other parent? Decisions by an Iowa court often have long term impacts on your relationship with your child. This article will provide an overview of Iowa child custody in 2021. We will address the following topics:

  • The types of child custody in Iowa.
  • How child custody works in Iowa.
  • What joint legal custody is.
  • What sole legal custody is.
  • What physical custody is.
  • What 50-50 custody is.
  • What primary physical custody is.
  • What split physical care is.
  • How to modify child custody.

What are the types of child custody in Iowa?

If you have a child who is a minor (under 18), you may be asking yourself how you will share custody with your ex-spouse after your divorce or break up. Generally, there are two types of custody, legal and physical. There are two types of legal custody, sole legal custody and joint legal custody. There are three types of physical custody, primary physical care, joint/shared physical care and split physical care. Each family is different and these types of custody are meant to cater to everyone’s unique situation.

Many worry that a primary physical care arrangement will reduce the status of the parent who doesn’t have primary physical custody. This isn’t necessarily true. So long as both parents share joint legal custody, you will both have the right to participate in making decisions about your child’s upbringing. Learn about what happens if the parents are minors in our article about Child Custody for Teenage Parents in Iowa.

In many custody cases, the minor is appointed a Guardian Ad Litem. Learn about the Role of a Guardian Ad Litem in Iowa Custody Cases?

Iowa Code Chapter 598.41(3) requires courts to consider the following factors when considering which custody arrangement is in the best interest of the minor child:

  • Whether one or both parents agree or are opposed to joint custody;
  • Whether each parent would be a suitable custodian for the child;
  • Whether the parents can communicate with each other regarding the child’s needs;
  • Whether the psychological and emotional needs and development of the child will suffer due to lack of active contact with and attention from both parents;
  • Whether a history of domestic abuse exists;
  • Whether both parents have actively cared for the child since the separation;
  • Whether the parents can communicate with each other regarding the child’s needs;
  • Whether each parent can support the other parent’s relationship with the child;
  • Whether the safety of the child, other children, or the other parent would be jeopardized by the awarding of joint custody or by unsupervised or unrestricted visitation; and
  • The geographic proximity of the parents.

How does child custody work in Iowa?

In Iowa, legal custody will determine the legal rights of responsibilities of each parent. Legal custody refers to who will be able to make decisions regarding the child’s legal status, medical care, education, extracurricular activities and religious instruction. See Iowa Code Ch. 598.1(5). This type of custody may be either shared or given to one parent. This is known as joint legal custody and sole legal custody. Learn about what happens when you Alienate a Child from the other Parent in Iowa Custody Cases.

Joint legal custody

Joint legal custody is the standard/baseline for custody in Iowa. In Iowa, this means that both parents have equal legal custody rights. Generally, tension between parents isn’t enough to demonstrate that joint custody isn’t appropriate. The preference for joint custody exists because it encourages parents to work together and allows children to be raised by both of their parents. Where only one party requests that joint legal custody be awarded, Iowa Code Ch. 598.41(3) 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 best interest of the child.  

Sole legal custody

Sole legal custody isn’t awarded often. The only exception to joint legal custody is where there exists a history of domestic abuse between the parents. Allegations of domestic abuse are not enough to justify a court to award sole legal custody. A history of domestic abuse must be demonstrated by factors set forth in Iowa Code Section 236.2 which include:

  • 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, the holding of a parent in contempt for violating a protective order;
  • A peaceful officer responding to a report of alleged domestic abuse; or
  • A conviction of domestic abuse assault.  

Courts in Iowa may also award sole legal custody where there exists clear and convincing evidence that joint legal custody is unreasonable and is not in the best interest of the child or children. If a non-custodial parent faces severe depression, substance abuse, suicidal tendencies or may be a danger to the public, courts have found that joint legal custody is unreasonable and not in the best interest of the child. Sole legal custody means one parent has exclusive rights to make decisions for their children.  

In Iowa, joint legal custody is far more common. Courts heavily favor awarding custody to both parents. This allows both parents to have a say in the important life decisions for the child. Unless there is some outstanding circumstance justifying sole legal custody to one parent, the judge will likely grant joint custody. Even if a parent doesn’t have primary physical custody (IE the child does not get to live with them), they could still have an equal say in major decisions in the child’s life.

Physical Custody in Iowa

Physical custody, also known as physical care, is determined by where and with whom the children will live. The judge can grant primary physical care to one parent or allow both parents to share physical custody. The following are the 3 types of physical custody:

  • Joint physical custody: The child lives with both of their parents, splitting time between them in some way.
  • Primary physical custody: If a child only lives with one parent, this is referred to as primary physical care. Here, the child lives mainly with one parent, even if parents have joint legal custody. The noncustodial parent is granted visitation rights to the children.
  • Split physical custody: Split physical care is when each parent has primary care of one child. This is often disfavored in Iowa as Iowa courts do not want to split siblings apart.  

Ultimately, what is best for the child is what the court will decide on. The goal is to make sure both children have the best relationships they can with their parents if at all possible.

50-50 Custody in Iowa

Most divorcing couples want to share physical care of their children. Joint (also known as shared) physical care is an arrangement where both parents share parenting time with the child (or children), maintaining homes for the child, providing routing care for the children and having equal parenting rights and responsibilities for the child. In theory, this means that the children should spend a roughly equal amount of time with the child and should share equally in making decisions on any matters involving the children. Courts tend to lean towards this arrangement, though it isn’t presumed in Iowa. Learn more about Iowa Divorce and Custody Mediation here.

In Iowa, courts consider the following factors when deciding whether to award joint physical care:

  • The historical caregiving arrangement for the child between the parents
  • The parents' ability to communicate and respect each other
  • The degree of conflict between the parents
  • The similarities and differences between both parents’ approaches to the child’s daily routines

This is not an extensive list of factors courts may consider when deciding whether to award joint physical care. At the end of the day, the court will make a decision in the best interest of the child.

Should the court award joint physical care, a parenting schedule will be made, tailored to the family’s individual needs. The following schedules are most common with joint physical care arrangements:

  • Alternating weeks: the child stays with one parent one week then the other parent the next. This could also alternate every two weeks.  
  • Splitting each week in half: the child stays with one parent for half the week then the other parent for the other half of the week.
  • 2-2-3: the child stays with one parent for two nights, the other for two nights, then alternates the weekends between parents.  

While these are the general parenting schedules, custodial arrangements can become much more complicated. Ideally, a child will spend half their time with each parent and the parents would be able to both work together to make decisions in the child’s life. However, perfect 50-50 custody doesn’t work this perfectly in practice. Children often times don’t adjust well to the frequent traveling between parents. In these cases, a primary physical care arrangement might better fit their family.

Primary Physical Custody

With these primary physical care arrangements, one parent will be chosen to be the primary caregiver of the child and the other child will receive rights to visitation of the child. In these circumstances, a primary parent is responsible for the child’s day to day care and makes decisions concerning the child’s routine care. This leaves the non-primary parent sometimes feeling as though their status as a parent is reduced. So long as you share joint legal custody, you will both still have the right to make important life decisions for the child even if the child isn’t living with you.  

As previously noted, the best interest of the child is the primary concern of the court. Iowa Code Section 598.41(3) provides the factors the court must consider when awarding custody. How much weight the court gives to each factor is up to the court to decide. Courts do not consider gender/sex of the parents or the geographic location of parents in making their decision. Courts do consider the characteristics and needs of the child, the characteristics of the parents, the capacity and desire of the parents to provide for the needs of the child, the relationship of the child with each parent, the nature of each proposed environment and, finally, the effect of continuing or changing the current living situation with the child.

In addition to these factors, courts often do consider who has previously been the primary caregiver, which parent is more likely to help the child have a healthy relationship with both parents (hasn’t tried to take the child away from the other parent), whether there is a history of domestic violence, failure to pay child support, and moral misconduct of the parent (criminal record/drug abuse), to name a few.  

Physical care really focuses on who, in what location, can best take care of the child’s needs. The courts want the child to maintain continuing contact physically and emotionally with both parents. Liberal visitation for a non-custodial parent is almost always appropriate. Courts will order visitation schedules to ensure there is a minimum amount of visitation the non-custodial parent will receive. While parents are able to deviate from the schedule if they agree, the schedule must be followed if the parents disagree.  

Split physical care

With split physical care arrangements, parents have primary care of at least one child. These arrangements are rare and generally discouraged by courts, as they tend to separate children from their siblings.

Modifying Or Changing Child Custody Arrangements

If you are able to show a change of circumstances with the living situation of the child or the parents’ ability to take care of the child, then you can petition the court for a modification.  

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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