How Do I File for Divorce in Iowa

Learn about the steps you’ll need to take to start the divorce process in Iowa—and how you can get help.

By , Retired Judge

Along with the emotional and practical issues involved in ending a marriage, the divorce process itself requires navigating the legal system in Iowa. While that might seem overwhelming, it really doesn't have to be all that difficult, particularly if you and your soon-to-be ex can cooperate. Here's what you need to know to get started with an Iowa divorce.

What to Know Before Filing for an Iowa Divorce

Before you begin the process of filing for divorce (known as "dissolution of marriage" in Iowa), you should figure out the answers to a few preliminary questions.

Do You Meet Iowa's Residency Requirements for Divorce?

Iowa's residency requirement is something of a mixed bag. If you're the one who will file the initial divorce papers (the "petitioner"), you don't need to live in Iowa if:

  • your spouse (the "respondent") is an Iowa resident, and
  • you will be able to "serve" the divorce papers personally on your spouse (more on that below).

If you don't meet both of those conditions, then you must be an Iowa resident for at least one continuous year just before you file for divorce. In addition, you may not have taken up residency in the state solely for the purpose of getting an Iowa divorce. (Iowa Code § 598.5(k) (2022).)

Do You Have Legal Grounds for Divorce?

As in all states, you need a legally accepted reason (or "ground") for divorce in Iowa. Many states allow divorce based on both "fault" grounds and "no-fault" grounds. In fault-based divorces, the spouse who files for divorce claims that the other spouse was to blame for the end of the marriage by committing certain kinds of misconduct (like adultery, desertion, or cruelty). With no-fault grounds, neither spouse is accusing the other of wrongdoing.

Iowa no longer permits divorce based on fault. The only legally accepted ground for divorce is that there's been a breakdown of the marriage relationship, and there's no reasonable prospect that it can be preserved. The dissolution petition (the document needed to start the divorce) must state that this marital breakdown exists. (Iowa Code § 598.5(g) (2022).)

Will Your Divorce Be Uncontested or Contested?

If you can file for an uncontested divorce in Iowa, the entire process will be much easier, quicker, and less expensive than a traditional contested divorce. But for a divorce to be truly uncontested, you and your spouse will have had to settle all of the issues involved in ending your marriage, including:

Once those issues are resolved, it's typical to incorporate the settlement terms in a marital settlement agreement, which can then become a part of your divorce judgment.

If there are any issues that you can't agree about, your case will proceed as a contested divorce. Many couples who start out the divorce process with disputes do eventually manage to settle those disputes at some point—usually with the help of their lawyers, a mediator, or both.

In fact, Iowa law provides that a court may order mediation in any divorce case, once it's already in the court system. (Iowa Code § 598.7(1) (2022).) Additionally, judges—on their own or at the request of either spouse—may order a divorcing couple to engage in a "conciliation" process for a period of 60 days or less. When deciding whether this would be appropriate, judges will consider issues such as a history of domestic abuse. The spouses will meet with a conciliator (similar to a mediator or therapist) to discuss their marital problems and see whether they can be resolved. Costs involved in the conciliation process are typically shared by the spouses. (Iowa Code § 598.16 (2022).)

Will You Need Professional Help With Your Divorce?

If you have a settlement agreement and a relatively uncomplicated case, you should be able to handle filing for divorce yourself. A do-it-yourself divorce will be the cheapest route to ending your marriage, but it will take some time and attention to detail to make sure you have all the right forms, have filled them out correctly, and have followed all of the steps and requirements for divorce in Iowa.

Short of having an attorney represent you in the divorce, there are other ways of getting help with the process. For example, you could do one or a combination of the following:

  • If you want the advantages of an uncontested divorce but are having trouble agreeing with your spouse about some issues, divorce mediation may help you work through the obstacles and reach an agreement.
  • You can file for divorce online by using a service that will provide you with the completed forms and basically walk you through the process. But online divorce services normally require that you have an uncontested divorce.
  • Even if you pursue the do-it-yourself or online divorce option, you might want to consult with a lawyer when you have questions or want an independent legal review of your settlement agreement.

Without an agreement, you'll follow a traditional contested divorce route. Because that will almost certainly require hiring a lawyer—who will take care of the forms, filing, and all other legal matters during the divorce—the information outlined below is mainly focused on the filing process for folks who are handling their own divorce.

Preparing the Initial Divorce Papers

You can download all of the forms you'll need for your divorce from the Iowa Courts website, along with a complete guide to the process with lists of the forms for different situations.

It's important to note that the state is implementing a system that will require all spouses seeking divorce to file their documents electronically, unless they get court permission to use paper documents. This is being done on a county-by-county basis, so you'll have to check with the court clerk in the county where you filed the petition, to see whether they've changed over to electronic filing. You'll have to register to use the electronic filing system.

There are separate forms for marriages without children and with children (minors and other children financially dependent on you). Also, some of the forms are different, depending on whether you're filing electronically or in person (on paper).

For marriages without children, the courts provide an interactive questionnaire that will produce the documents you need for your divorce. For starting a divorce involving children, you'll need to download and complete the following forms:

  • Petition (Form 201)
  • Cover sheet for a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage with Children (if not filing electronically; Form 202)
  • Confidential Information Form (if not filing electronically; Form 203)
  • Original Notice for Personal Service (Form 204, if filing electronically; Form 204a, if not), and
  • Protected Information Disclosure (Form 211).

Filing and Serving the Divorce Papers

When you're ready to file the initial divorce papers, be aware that there are court fees involved. The filing fee for divorce was $265 as of 2022, but it's always subject to change. To confirm the current fee amount, you can check online or call the court clerk's office. Regardless of the type of divorce you're seeking, if you can't afford court fees you can request that the court postpone them, by filing an Application and Affidavit to Defer Payment of Costs (Form 209).

You must file the petition either in the Iowa county where you reside or where your spouse resides. (Iowa Code § 598.2 (2022).) If you're not filing electronically, bring your documents to the district court clerk's office. Once your petition is filed, the court clerk will provide you with a stamped copy for your spouse.

Even with an uncontested divorce, Iowa requires that you serve your spouse with the divorce papers. The easiest way to do this is to hand over or mail the documents and have your spouse sign an Acceptance of Service (Form 205).

If your spouse won't sign an Acceptance of Service, then you'll have to have someone else deliver the documents. Under Iowa law, anyone who isn't involved in the case can serve the papers. (Iowa Rules Civ. Proc. § 1.302(4) (2022).) Rather than get friends or extended family members involved, many people opt to have the papers served by the sheriff's office in the county your spouse lives in, or by a private, professional process server. Call in advance to see what fee the sheriff's office or process server will charge.

If you're having trouble completing personal service—for instance, if you can't locate your spouse—check with the court clerk about how to request alternative methods of service, such as publication in a newspaper. But when you request service by publication, you will have to show that you've conducted an extensive search.

It's important to remember that if you don't serve your spouse within 90 days of filing the petition, and there isn't a good reason for the delay, the court will dismiss your case. (Iowa Rules Civ. Proc. § 1.302(5) (2022).)

Next Steps in Your Iowa Divorce

After you've filed and served the divorce papers, pay attention to the next steps needed to move your case along.

Responding to the Divorce Papers

Ordinarily, a respondent spouse has 20 days from the date of service to reply to the petition. (Iowa Rules Civ. Proc. § 1.303(1)(2022).) That spouse will usually reply with an answer (Form 215) that agrees with or disputes certain items contained in the petition. In the answer, the respondent may also ask the court to address issues such as support, custody and visitation, and division of marital property. If the respondent doesn't answer, the court could enter a judgment in the petitioner's favor, meaning that the final divorce judgment would include what was requested in the petition (such as spousal support, custody, or a certain division of the couple's property).

Financial Disclosures

In any divorce, Iowa law provides that both spouses must submit a Financial Affidavit (Form 224). This requirement may be waived, but only if both spouses request it and the court approves that request. (Iowa Code § 598.13(1) (a) (2022).)

This affidavit requires you to provide a great deal of data about your income and assets. It's a good idea to gather as much of this information in advance as you can, because it's important that you be as thorough as possible in completing this form. Honesty is imperative, because a spouse who fails to disclose all accounts, debts, or assets could face penalties, such as fines and possibly jail time.

Parenting Education Course

In any divorce that involves issues of child custody or visitation, Iowa law mandates that the spouses participate in a court-approved parenting course. The purpose is to educate and sensitize the parents to children's needs that may come about because of the divorce. The court may agree to waive the course for a good reason, such as if the spouses previously participated in a court-approved course. (Iowa Code § 598.15(1) (2022).)

Finalizing Your Iowa Divorce

Iowa has a 90-day waiting period (starting when the respondent is served with the divorce papers) before the the court may grant a final divorce. (Iowa Code § 598.19 (2022).) If your case is uncontested and you've met all the legal requirements, you can usually get your divorce judgment once waiting period has expired. How long it will actually take will depend on the court's divorce caseload in the county where you filed.

In a contested case, the process will probably take considerably more time. If you aren't able to settle all your issues at some point along the way, you'll have a trial. After hearing testimony, a judge will make a decision on those issues that remain unresolved. This is by far the longest and costliest route to obtaining your divorce judgment, and it can take up to a year or more—which is why the vast majority of cases settle at some point before trial.

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