Child Custody and Relocation Laws in Iowa

Find out how courts handle custody issues when one parent wants to relocate with the children after a divorce.

If you're divorced or separated, the complications associated with parenting can feel restrictive, painful, and confusing. Suddenly, you can't do everything you'd like. For example, if you or your ex want to move away with the kids, you'll have to reach an agreement. If you can't, you'll have to go through the Iowa family courts to make sure the move doesn't hurt the children or infringe on anyone's rights.

When is relocation an issue in Iowa?

If parent A shares legal custody (meaning, the right to make important decisions about a child's life) or physical custody (meaning where the child lives) with the child's other parent, parent A can't just move away with the children. Instead, if parent A wants to take the children and relocate 150 or more miles away from the child's existing, court-ordered residence, then the parents must both agree to the move or else submit the issue to the Iowa family courts.

To win the court's approval to move, the parent who wants to leave must show that there's been a substantial change of circumstances. This means there's been a major, fundamental change in someone's life since the last custody order was issued.

If the family court judge finds that there's been a substantial change in circumstances, the court will change the existing custody order in such a way that the child's relationship with the non-relocating parent is affected as little as possible. The court's goal here will be to allow the move but also to preserve the child's relationship, as much as possible, with the parent who isn't moving. To that end, the judge may order that:

  • the non-moving parent gets extended visitation during summer vacations and school breaks
  • the non-moving parent has scheduled telephone contact with the child, and/or
  • both parents have personal and financial responsibility for transporting the child back and forth for visitation with the parent who hasn't moved.

If a parent has, in the past, interfered with the other parent's visitation or custody rights, the court can require that parent to post a cash bond to ensure compliance with court-ordered visitation. If the parent then fails to comply with the court's order, the cash bond will be forfeited (meaning, the parent who posted the bond can't get the money back).

Sometimes, when parents divorce or separate, a court will issue an initial (first) custody order that prohibits either parent from moving the child away from an established residence, effectively requiring parents to remain in or near a particular city or other location. However, Iowa's higher courts strongly disapprove of these provisions because they're "mere speculation" inasmuch as they improperly try to predict the future, they limit or control a parent's actions, and they're arbitrary and inflexible.

What is the legal process if one parent objects to the other parent's move?

If a parent wants to move the children away to a new residence that's more than 150 miles away from the current, court-ordered residence, that parent either has to obtain the permission of the other parent or submit the dispute to the courts. If there's a disagreement, the judge will:

  • listen to testimony
  • consider evidence about the case
  • issue findings of fact, and
  • issue an order allowing or denying the move and adjusting the custody and visitation order accordingly.

The burden of proof is on the parent who wants to relocate, to prove that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that justifies the move and that the move is in the child's best interests. If a parent seeking relocation can't prove there's been a substantial change in circumstances that validates the move, the court won't allow the parent to move the children.

Above all else, the move must be in a child's best interests. In order to determine if a relocation will best serve the child's best interest, a judge will consider the following:

  • each parent's suitability as a custodian
  • the child's emotional and psychological needs, and whether the child will suffer if there isn't active contact with both parents
  • the parents' ability to communicate with each other about the child's needs
  • whether each parent has actively cared for the child before or since the separation or divorce
  • whether each parent can support the other parent's relationship with the child
  • the child's wishes, based on the child's age and maturity, about each proposed custodial arrangement, and whether the child has a strong objection
  • whether the parents agree to or oppose joint custody
  • the geographic proximity of the parents
  • whether the child's or a parent's safety will be jeopardized by an award of joint custody or unrestricted visitation, and
  • whether there's a history of domestic abuse.

Even though an older child may express a strong opinion against relocation, that isn't decisive. Iowa's appellate courts have ruled that a child's preferenceis entitled to less weight in a modification decision, like relocation, than it is in the first custody proceeding. Courts must give some weight to the opinion of a child of suitable age and maturity, but the opinion isn't decisive. For example, in one key case, a fourteen-year-old girl expressed a strong desire to remain in Iowa, but the Iowa Court of Appeals said that while her opinion was entitled to "some weight," the court could not "defer" to her wishes.

How have Iowa courts decided relocation cases in the past?

In a case decided by the Iowa Court of Appeals, a couple divorced after 14 years of marriage. The trial court awarded the parents joint custody of their three children and further ordered the children's residence to remain within their existing school district. Later, the mother asked the court to modify the residency requirement and permit her to relocate to North Dakota—some 470 miles away—with her children. The mother asked to move because she wanted to live close to her family, because her elderly parents needed her assistance, and because she could get a fresh start in North Dakota. The appellate court acknowledged that American society has become increasingly mobile, and noted that the mother had been the children's primary caregiver since the parents divorced. The court determined that all of these facts formed a legitimate and sufficient basis for the mother to move away with her children, provided that the children's visitation schedule with their father be adjusted to preserve his relationship with them.

Next steps

Relocation cases are challenging and legally complex. If you have custody or visitation rights and you want to move out of Iowa with your children, or if your ex has custody or visitation rights and wants to take your children away against your wishes, you should hire an experienced Iowa family law attorney to advise you about your rights and obligations and represent you in court if necessary.

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