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Iowa Child Custody Law Explained | Iowa Parenting Laws 2020

Article written by Illinois & Iowa Attorney Kevin O'Flaherty
Updated on
November 22, 2019

In this article, we explain Iowa child custody law and answer questions including “what does it mean to have legal custody of a child in Iowa?”, “how do Iowa courts determine child custody?”,  “what are the different types of custody in Iowa?”, “what is the difference between joint legal custody and sole legal custody in Iowa?”, “what is joint physical placement?”, “how is joint legal custody or sole legal custody determined in Iowa?”, “do we need a court order if parents agree on custody?”, and “what if one parent denies visitation to another parent?”.

What Does it Mean to Have Legal Custody of a Child in Iowa?

Custody or legal custody refers to the rights and responsibilities parents have towards their child.  The rights and responsibilities refers to their major life decisions, such as medical care, education, safety, religion, extracurricular activities, and the child’s legal status.

How Do Iowa Courts Determine Child Custody?

Iowa Law requires that the court consider the best interests of the child and order a custody arrangement that will allow the child to maintain consistent physical and emotional contact with both parents whenever possible in order to encourage parents to share the rights and responsibilities of raising the child, so long as doing so will not cause physical or significant emotional harm to the children, other children, or either parent.

What are the Different Types of Custody in Iowa?

Custody is broken down into three types: joint legal custody, sole legal custody and physical placement.

What is the Difference Between Joint Legal Custody? and Sole Legal Custody in Iowa?

Joint legal custody means both parents have a right to help make decisions about the child.  Sole legal custody means that only one parent has legal responsibility for the minor child.  These terms only refer to which party has the right to help make major decisions for the child.  Physical placement must also be taken into account.

What is Joint Physical Placement?

Joint physical placement means that both parents have residential rights and responsibilities towards the child, such as shared parenting time, maintaining homes for the child, and providing routine care for the child.  Neither parent’s rights are superior to the other.  The parent living with the child the majority of the time is often referred to as the custodial parent, and the parent that does not reside with the child is the non-custodial parent.  Primary physical care can be awarded to the parent that lives with the child the majority of the time, but when the children spend roughly equal amounts of time with each parent, joint physical care is more likely to be awarded to each parent.

How is Joint or Sole Legal Custody Determined in Iowa?

Many factors are considered when determining whether a joint or sole custody arrangement would be best for the child.  Iowa law favors joint legal custody unless there is significant evidence to suggest it would be in the child’s best interest for one parent to be the sole caretaker.

Examples of what a court considers when awarding custody are as follows:

  • A parent exhibits immoral behavior that could interfere with the child’s health, safety, or welfare;
  • A parent’s substance abuse (drugs or alcohol);
  • A parent who is violent or abusive;
  • The geographic proximity of the parents;
  • Whether one or both parents agree or are opposed to joint custody;
  • Whether both parents have actively cared for the child before and since the separation;
  • Whether each parent would be a suitable custodian for the child;
  • The relationship between each parent and child; and
  • Whether each parent could continue to support the physical and emotional needs of the child without becoming a danger to the child or themselves.

Do We Need a Court Order if Parents Agree on Custody?

Yes.  Even if both parents agree to their own terms of custody, the details of those terms must be submitted and approved by the court in the final decree of dissolution of marriage.

What If One Parent Denies Visitation to Another Parent?

If a parent is denied visitation and a court order is in place, the offended party must file a motion with the court to enforce the provisions of the order.  Denying visitation to a parent is not a way to get child support payments or a valid reaction to not receiving support.  Unless the child’s health, safety, or welfare is at risk, a parent cannot deny visitation to another parent without express permission from the court.

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