Iowa Child Custody Guide


Iowa Child Custody Guide

Are you a parent seeking legal assistance with child custody in Iowa? Court decisions can have a significant, lifelong impact on you and your child. Our family law attorneys provide effective legal services to help you achieve your family goals and answer your questions about child custody agreements in Iowa. Contact Diana Miller in southeast Iowa or one of our Des Moines, Iowa family law attorneys to get started today.

Types of Child Custody in Iowa

If you have a child under the age of 18, you may be wondering what the custody agreement will look like with your ex-spouse after the divorce. Generally speaking, there are two types of custody (legal custody and physical custody), two types of legal custody (sole legal custody and joint legal custody), and three types of physical custody (primary physical care, joint/shared physical care and split physical care). Each situation will vary based on the type of custody arrangement you want and what is best for your family. Below are the different types of child custody in Iowa:

While many people worry that a primary physical custody arrangement will reduce their status as a parent, this is rarely true.  So long as you share joint legal custody with your spouse, you will both participate in making decisions about your child’s upbringing.

In considering what custody arrangement is in the best interest of the minor child, Iowa Code § 598.41(3) requires the court to consider the following factors:

  • Whether each parent would be a suitable custodian for the child.
  • 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 the parents can communicate with each other regarding 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 parent'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 consideration the child's age and maturity.
  • Whether one or both the 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 the awarding of joint custody or by unsupervised or unrestricted visitation.
  • Whether a history of domestic abuse exists.

How Child Custody Works in Iowa

What can you expect from the different types of custody arrangements, and what factors influence a court's custody decision? Learn more about how legal custody, physical custody, and 50-50 custody work in Iowa below. 

Legal Custody

In Iowa, legal custody determines the legal rights and responsibilities of both parents. Legal custody refers to the legal custodial rights of a parent, which include “decision making affecting the child’s legal status, medical care, education, extracurricular activities, and religious instruction.”  Iowa Code § 598.1(5) (2010).  Courts use different standards in determining what type of legal custody should be given to parents than is used to determine physical custody.  This type of custody may either be shared or given to one parent, known as joint legal custody and sole legal custody, respectively. Legal decisions made on behalf of the child can include decisions about the child:

  • Education
  • Medical care 
  • Legal status
  • Mental health care 
  • After-school activities 
  • Religious instruction and training 

Joint Legal Custody

Joint legal custody is the most frequent type of legal custody awarded.  Where parents have joint legal custody, both have equal legal custodial rights.  Id.  In Iowa, a strong policy in favor of joint legal custody exists.  Generally, the tension between parents is not enough to demonstrate that a joint custody arrangement is not appropriate.  The preference for joint legal custody exists because it encourages both parents to share in the rights and responsibilities of child-rearing.  It also allows a child to maintain a relationship with both parents.  Where one party requests that joint legal custody be awarded, Iowa Code § 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 is rarely awarded to a parent.  The only statutory exception to joint legal custody is where there exists a history of domestic abuse between the parties.  However, mere allegations of domestic abuse do not justify an award of sole legal custody.  A history of domestic abuse must be demonstrated by the factors set forth in Section 236.2, which include: (1) commencement of a domestic abuse assault action; (2) the issuance of a protective order, court order or consent agreement; (3) the issuance of an emergency protective order; the holding of a parent in contempt for violating a protective order; (4) a peace officer responding to a report of alleged domestic abuse; or (5) a conviction of domestic abuse assault. 

A court may also award sole legal custody where there exists clear and convincing evidence that joint legal custody is unreasonable and not in the best interest of the children.  For example, courts have found that joint legal custody is unreasonable and not in the best interest of the child where a noncustodial parent suffered from depression, substance abuse, suicidal tendencies, and was a danger to himself and children.  Under sole legal custody, one parent has exclusive legal custody. 

In Iowa, joint legal custody is more common, and Iowa law strongly favors awarding joint legal custody to both parents. This allows each parent to weigh in on important life decisions for the child. Unless there is a good reason to award sole legal custody to one parent, the judge will likely grant joint legal custody to you and your child's other parent. This is good news for a parent who does not have primary physical custody but wants an equal say in the major decisions of their child's life.

Physical Custody

Physical custody, more commonly referred to as physical care, is determined by where, and with whom, the child or children will live. The judge may grant primary physical care to one parent or allow both parents to share physical custody:

  • Joint legal custody: Sharing physical custody is legally referred to as joint physical care or shared physical care. Under joint physical care, the child lives with both of their parents at different times.
  • Primary physical custody: If a child lives with just one parent, this is referred to as primary physical care. In this type of custody, the child lives mainly with one parent, even if the parents have joint legal custody. The noncustodial parent is granted visitation with the children.
  • Split physical custody: Split physical care is an arrangement where each parent has primary care of one child. This custody arrangement is disfavored in Iowa, as judges do not like to separate siblings. 

In Iowa, the best decision for the child is typically considered to be maximum and continual contact with each of his or her parents. Ultimately, the custody decision will depend on what is best for the child. 

50-50 Custody

Many divorcing couples seek shared physical care of their children.  Joint or shared physical care describes an arrangement where both parents share parenting time with the child, maintain homes for the child, provide routine care for the child, and have equal parenting rights and responsibilities.  In theory, 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.  While there is no presumption for joint physical care in Iowa, courts must consider joint physical custody where one parent requests it and must explain why joint physical care is not in the best interests of the child if it instead awards one parent primary physical care. 

Iowa courts consider the following factors when evaluating whether to award joint physical care; (1) the historical caregiving arrangement for the child between the parties; (2) the parents’ ability to communicate and show mutual respect; (3) the degree of conflict between the parents; and (4) the similarities and differences between the parents’ approach to daily routine care of the child.  These factors are not exclusive and courts are permitted to consider other factors relevant to the child’s best interest.

Shared physical care parenting schedules vary and can be tailored to your family.  The following scheduling methods are the most common in joint physical care arrangements:

  • Alternating weeks: Under this method, your child stays with you one week and then with their other parent the next week. You may also choose to alternate every two weeks.
  • Splitting each week in half: Under this schedule, your child will stay with you for half a week and then with their other parent the rest of the week.
  • 2-2-3: Under this rotation, your child stays with one parent for 2 nights (M, T), the other parent for 2 nights (W, Th), and then alternates the 3 nights of the weekend (F, S, S).

However, this custodial arrangement can be more complicated than it sounds. Ideally, a child would spend half of his or her time with each parent, and the parents would equally share in making the most important decisions about the child's life. 50-50 custody may not work out so neatly in practice, however. You may find that you take on more of the day-to-day child care responsibilities, or that your child does not adjust well to frequently going back and forth between you and your ex-spouse's homes. If so, a primary physical care arrangement may be a better fit for your family.

Primary Physical Custody

In primary physical care arrangements, one parent is chosen to be the primary caretaker of the child and the other parent receives child visitation orders.  In such arrangements, a primary physical custodian has responsibility for the child’s day-to-day care and makes decisions concerning the child’s routine care. While many people worry that a primary physical custody arrangement will reduce their status as a parent, this is rarely true.  So long as you share joint legal custody with your spouse, you will both participate in making decisions about your child’s upbringing.

The best interests of the child is the court’s primary concern.  Iowa Code Section 598.41(3) enumerates the factors the court must consider in awarding custody.  How much weight a court places on each factor varies on a case by case basis.  Generally, however, courts place significant weight on a child’s emotional stability. Courts do not consider the sex or gender or a parent or a parent’s geographic location in making decisions about physical custody.  Courts consider the characteristics and needs of the child, the characteristics of the parents, the capacity and desire of each parent to provide for the need of the child, the relationship of the child with each parent, the nature of each proposed environment, and the effect of continuing or changing an existing custodial status.  Physical care hinges on who can minister more effectively to the long-range best interests of the child.

In addition to the factors set forth in section 598.41(3), a court may consider which parent has historically been the primary caretaker, which parent is more likely to encourage contact between the noncustodial parent and the child, parental alienation or interference with the parental rights of the noncustodial parent, domestic abuse/history of violence, failure to pay child support, religious instruction, moral misconduct and a parent’s ability to be a good role model, a parent’s tendency for substance abuse that affects his or her ability to parent the child, criminal record, any medical or physical disability of a parent that would limit his or her ability to care for the child, persons with whom a parent resides, the suitability of a parent’s residence, the child’s preference.  Iowa courts have refused, however, to take into consideration a parent’s sexual orientation to limit or restrict custody or visitation.  The above is not an exclusive list of the various factors a court may consider.

Generally speaking, it is in the best interest of the child to maintain maximum continuing physical and emotional contact with both parents.  To ensure such a relationship, liberal visitation for a noncustodial parent is almost always appropriate. Court-ordered child visitation schedules serve to ensure the minimum visitation a noncustodial parent will receive.  While parties are free to deviate from the court-ordered visitation schedule as agreed, the court-ordered visitation schedule must be followed where no agreement is reached.

Split Physical Care

In split physical care arrangements, each parent has primary physical care of at least one child.  Such custodial arrangements are rare and generally discouraged by courts, out of concern about separating children.  There is a strong presumption that absent compelling circumstances, siblings, including half-siblings, should not be separated.

Changing Child Custody

Keep in mind that you can petition to have a child custody agreement changed if you are able to show a change of circumstance. If you have questions or concerns about child custody or are experiencing child custody issues in Iowa, you will benefit from having an experienced family law attorney on your side.

How to Find Your Family Law Attorney

The stakes are high in a custody case. The judge's custody determination will dictate how much time you get to spend with your child and the level of responsibilities and rights you will have. The legal complexities of a custody battle are best handled by a dedicated family law attorney. Your attorney should be highly knowledgeable about child custody laws in Iowa and help you get the outcome you desire. 

Contact a Family Law Attorney at Whitfield & Eddy Law

Are you an Iowa parent looking for legal assistance with a child custody battle? Contact us at Whitfield & Eddy Law in Mt. Pleasant, Fairfield or southeast Iowa or Des Moines for more information about custody laws and to discuss your child custody case today.


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