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Heather Jones

If you have a child with a party and you are not married in Iowa, you have equal rights, but you must establish them first. As an unmarried father, you must show paternity to exercise your parental rights. If you have difficulty co-parenting with the child's mother, you may need to go to court and request an order establishing child custody and physical placement. It may be that the court does not believe that joint custody is warranted when requested. Everything depends on what is known as the best interests of the child's standard. The court will make its rulings based on what is suitable for the child, not what the parents necessarily want. Even if you are unmarried, you will still have financial responsibilities to the child. Read on to find out more about parental rights in Iowa.  

Father playing with daughter on the couch


How to Establish Paternity


The first step in securing your parental rights is to establish paternity. The court cannot issue a custody or visitation order without being assured that you are the child's father. In other words, there can be no legal right to enforce without a clear showing of paternity. If the parties are married, there is an automatic presumption of paternity, which carries over to any issuing of custody and visitation orders in case of separation or divorce. In cases where the parties are not married, paternity is not presumed and must be shown.  


Showing paternity means establishing on the record that you are the father. There are two ways you can establish paternity that the Iowa family courts will accept. The first method is that when the child is born, you can sign an affidavit of paternity. This is a legal form that both parents must sign for it to be effective. If for some reason, the mother refuses to sign the affidavit, you can still establish paternity, but it might be trickier and a bit more time-consuming. There is also the possibility that you are not 100% certain that the child is yours. In the event that, for whatever reason, an affidavit of paternity is not signed at the birth of the child, one or both of the parties can request that the court order genetic testing.  


It is always encouraged for an unmarried parent to get genetic testing to show that they are the child's biological father and entitled to equal legal rights. If the child's mother resists genetic testing, you must petition the court to order genetic testing. Once the order is issued, genetic testing can occur, and the court can read the results onto the record, establishing paternity. While getting the testing done can be a bit of a hassle, it will leave no doubt as to who the child's father is, unlike an affidavit of paternity.  


Once paternity has been firmly established, you have clarified that you have equal legal rights to the child. Once you are assured of your paternity legal rights, you can exercise them.    


Asking for Custody and or Visitation


A lot of this process depends on your relationship with the child's mother. Naturally, not everything works out, and there can be a lot of hard feelings, or maybe the mother doesn't think you are cut out to be a father. Whatever the reason, if you are experiencing difficulty in your co-parenting relationship, it is best to ask for a court order addressing custody and visitation. You can petition the court to order that the parents have joint custody, which is typical. Joint legal custody is also often referred to as "50/50 custody." While that might make many people think that everything is 50/50, that is not the case. There is a difference between custody and physical placement. Sometimes, there are issues in the parents' lives that do not support a joint custody ruling at that time. The court may, upon looking at the facts and evidence, decide that one parent get full custody and, with it, all decision-making authority and then, years down the road, if circumstances change, decide on joint custody.  


Legal custody refers to having the power to make decisions for the child. Those decisions include where the child goes to school or church, who that child spends time around, and medical decisions for the child. Typically, with joint custody, each parent has equal power when it comes to making life-changing decisions for the child and is expected to discuss those decisions with the other parent.  


Physical placement refers to which parent the child is supposed to be residing with, depending on what is laid out in the court order. Sometimes another 50/50 split is reasonable, and other times it can look more like weekdays with one parent and weekends with the other. It all will revolve around the best interests of the child. In other words, what is best for the child, not the parents? If what is best for the child means that one parent doesn't get much time with that child or that any visitation is supervised, then that will be in the order. On the other hand, there have even been instances where the court determines that the mother is unfit and the father takes full custody even if the child is still very young. It boils down to the individual facts and circumstances of each situation.  


Something to remember is that the younger the child, the less likely it is that a court will order the father to have a lot of physical placements right away. If there is no reason for the mother not to have custody and placement with the newborn, then the court is unlikely to place the newborn with the father for extended periods. While that might seem unfair to the father, courts still tend to want the mother heavily involved in the care of a new or very young child. Once the child is older, the father can petition for and successfully gain more physical placement.  For more information on what the difference between custody and physical placement read our article, Iowa Child Custody – Physical vs. Legal Custody.  

Father feeding baby a bottle

Understand that Your Rights Come with Responsibilities


It is essential to understand that with rights come responsibilities. Once paternity has been established and your legal rights assured, you will also be responsible for certain things like child support and providing medical insurance, even if you do not see your child as much as you want to. While custody and physical placement are things that can be flexible and subject to change, you will always be responsible for paying child support in some amount. Child support in Iowa is determined by a calculation that looks at who has physical placement of the child and the income of both parents. Furthermore, the parent with access to health insurance that is reasonable will be ordered to add the child to their policy. Certain circumstances, such as a new job with less pay, will affect the calculation and the amount owed, but you have to ask the court to change any support order. Penalties for non-payment of child support are steep.  



In summary, unmarried fathers have equal legal rights to the child as the mother does, but they have to work to establish those rights if the child is born outside of marriage. A common question that is also asked is if a mother can keep a father from the child in Iowa. The short answer is yes, and a mother can keep a child from the father in Iowa if she can show the court that contact with the father is not in the child's best interests, just as a father could do to a mother. If one parent can prove that that other parent is dangerous or unfit, they can stop contact, at least temporarily. The courts do not like to stop contact unless there is a health or safety issue for the child. The courts want to preserve the parent-child relationship and allow children to know their parents.  


If you are an unmarried father in Iowa and want to make sure that your rights are established and protected, you should consult with an experienced Iowa family law attorney. An experienced attorney can help explain how your particular situation will be affected by the relevant law. Feel free to give O'Flaherty Law a call. We have experienced Iowa family law attorneys who would be happy to help you.  

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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