Child Custody in Iowa: The Best Interests of the Child

Learn about the "best interests" standard and how it applies to child custody cases in Iowa.

When a marriage ends, parents must try to decide how they will share custody and divide parenting time. If they’re not able to reach an agreement themselves and mediation doesn’t help, they’ll have to ask a judge to make decisions about child custody and visitation.  In Iowa, the judge, not a jury, makes this decision, based upon what will be in the best interests of the child. The judge has complete discretion to determine what arrangements will be in the child’s best interests. 

Preference for Joint Legal Custody

Iowa prefers to award joint legal custody to the parents if it is in the best interests of the child. Joint legal custody means that each parent has an equal right to make decisions about the child’s education, medical care, religious upbringing, extracurricular activities, and the like. Iowa courts will only grant sole legal custody to one parent where there is clear and convincing evidence that joint legal custody is not in the child’s best interests; the court also assumes joint custody isn’t in the child’s best interest when there’s been domestic abuse in the family. 

No Preference for Joint Physical Custody

Though Iowa courts tend to prefer to award joint legal custody, they do not like to award joint physical care of the child. Instead, the courts favor custody awards that give one parent sole physical care and grant the other parent liberal visitation of the child. Iowa also does not express a preference for awarding physical care of younger children to the mother. Instead, every decision comes down to what will be in the best interests of the child.   

Factors the Court Considers

When the court makes these custody determinations, it must always be guided by best interests of the child standard. Iowa Code section 598.43(3) enumerates a number of factors for the court to consider in determining the best interests of the child. The factors listed are not exhaustive and a court may consider any other factor that will bear on the child’s best interests. They include:

  • the child’s age, maturity level, and mental and physical health;
  • the child’s needs, including educational, social, moral, material, and emotional needs
  • each parent’s age, character, stability, and mental and physical health;
  • each parent’s ability to meet the child’s needs;
  • the relationship between the child and his or her siblings and parents;
  • each parent’s emotional and environmental stability and wholesomeness;
  • any moral misconduct committed by either parent, especially if that misconduct was committed in the presence of the child; and
  • the effect that changing the current custody arrangement would have on the child.

If the child is of sufficient age and maturity level, the court can consider the child’s preferences as far as custody. The child’s preference is not binding on the court, but it is one factor the judge may consider.

In Iowa, judges may appoint an independent investigator or an attorney for the child to investigate the circumstances of the case. The investigator or attorney for the child makes a report and recommendation to the court, and judges generally place a great deal of weight on the recommendations of the investigator or attorney for the child.

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