Do Grandparents Have Visitation Rights in Iowa?

Learn about your right to ask for grandparent visitation after one parent’s death or other family changes.

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Many grandparents have a close bond with their grandchildren. Life-altering changes to a family structure such as divorce, separation, or one parent's death can affect this relationship when a custodial or surviving parent tries to limit the kids' time with their grandparents. This article explains when and how you can ask for time with your grandchildren in Iowa.

Do I Have a Legal Right to see My Grandchildren in Iowa?

Grandparents have a legal right to request court-ordered visitation if their child dies leaving their grandchild with the other surviving parent. Great-grandparents may also exercise this right.

What Will I Need to Prove in Court?

The grandparent asking for court-ordered time has the "burden of proof" (the duty to provide sufficient evidence) to demonstrate that:

  • visitation is in the best interest of the child, considering the child's health, safety, and general welfare
  • a substantial grandparent-grandchild relationship exists, and
  • the child's parent has impaired judgment or is otherwise "unfit" (unable to meet the child's needs).

First, you must prove that the proposed visitation time is in your grandchild's best interests by presenting evidence related to:

  • the child's relationship with immediate family members
  • the distance between your home and the child's primary residence
  • the surviving parent and child's schedules and availability
  • the child's age
  • the child's health and safety needs
  • the mental and physical health of everyone involved, including the child's parents and anyone else that may have filed for custody
  • any previous child abuse or neglect convictions
  • any history of domestic violence
  • the surviving parent's preferences, and
  • any other factors the court deems relevant.

Next, you must demonstrate that you have an established relationship or close bond with your grandchild by showing:

  • the child lived with you or you financially supported the child for at least six months, or
  • you had frequent visits with the child over the course of at least one year

Finally, you must overcome the "presumption" (legal assumption) that parents are fit to make decisions about their child's care by proving your grandchild's parent has impaired judgment or is otherwise unfit. You can show this through evidence of:

  • child neglect, abuse, or violence
  • indifference or inability to promote the child's wellbeing
  • drug abuse, and
  • diagnosed mental illness.

If you can establish each of the above factors, the court may grant your request for visitation over the surviving parent's objection.

Will the Court Consider My Grandchild's Wishes?

In Iowa, judges may request an "in chambers meeting" to ask for the child's input about spending time with you. These meetings take place in the judge's office to protect children from having to state their custodial preferences in a public courtroom or with their parents nearby. If your grandchild wants to visit you, and you believe the child is old and/or mature enough to state a rational reason for the preference, you can ask the judge to schedule a private interview to determine and consider your child's wishes when making the final decision.

Are My Visitation Rights Terminated If My Grandchild Is Adopted?

Your visitation rights continue if a surviving parent's new spouse adopts your grandchild. However, if anyone other than a stepparent adopts your grandchild, your biological grandparent visitation rights will be automatically terminated and transferred to the adoptive grandparents.

What are the Risks of Going to Court to ask for Grandparent Visitation?

If you're thinking about asking for court-ordered time with your grandchild, you should consider two possible risks. First, there's a financial risk because you could be responsible for your grandchild's parent's attorneys' fees and costs associated with the proceeding. In Iowa, family law courts may order grandparents who bring an unsuccessful request for visitation to pay the parents' legal fees and costs.

Second, grandparent visitation may only be requested once every two years. If you ask for court-ordered time, and your request is denied—or you want to change an existing order to get more time—you must wait two years since your last request to return to court.

Can I ask for Custody of My Grandchild?

Iowa courts automatically presume that custody with the natural or legal parents is in a child's best interest, considering the child's health, safety, and welfare. Any non-parent—including a grandparent—interested in getting custody of a child, must show the parents are unsuitable in order to overcome this legal presumption.

If both of the child's parents die, however, grandparents can automatically assume custody of their grandchild. If multiple grandparents request custody, the court will select the grandparent most able to meet the child's needs.

How do I Start the Process?

You can request visitation by filing a "petition," (formal written request) in the district court for the county where your grandchild lives. If you already have a grandparent visitation order, but you want more time—or the child's parent is interfering with your visits—you can ask the court to "modify" (change) it or enforce the order.

If you have questions, you should speak to a local, experienced family law attorney, who can help you navigate this process.

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