Iowa Child Custody Laws

Learn how child custody is determined in Iowa, how you can modify custody orders, and more.

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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, but only after evaluating what's in the child's best interest. The judge has complete discretion to determine what arrangements will be in the child's best interests.

Iowa Custody Basics

Iowa custody laws break custody into two categories: legal custody and physical care. Legal custody means that the parent or parents have decision-making rights and responsibilities over the child. Common issues involving legal custody include where the child attends school, medical decisions, and religious instruction. (Iowa Code § 598.1 (5).) Physical care refers to a parent's right to maintain a home for the minor child and provide a routine for care of the child. (Iowa Code § 598.1 (7).)

Judges can award either type of custody to one or both parents, or a combination of both.

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. (Iowa Code § 598.41 (1)(a)) 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 Code § 598.1 (3).)

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. (Iowa Code § 598.41 (2)(b).)

When deciding whether joint custody is appropriate, the judge will evaluate the following:

  • whether each parent would be a suitable custodian for the child
  • whether the child's needs will suffer due to lack of contact with and attention from both parents
  • whether the parents can communicate with each other regarding the child's needs
  • whether each parent can support the other's relationship with the child and the other parent
  • the child's preference for joint custody (if the child is old enough and mature enough to express an opinion)
  • whether the parents agree to or oppose joint custody
  • the geographic proximity of the parents
  • whether joint custody will risk the child or either parent's safety
  • whether there is a history of domestic abuse, and
  • whether the parent lives with or allows the child to be around, a registered sex offender. (Iowa Code § 598.41 (3).)

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.

It's important to understand that if the parents agree to share custody of their children, the court will approve the request, as long as it's in the child's best interest. (Iowa Code § 598.41 (4).)

Regardless of whether the court awards joint custody, unless the judge orders otherwise, Iowa law permits both parents to have continued access to information concerning the child, such as medical, educational, and law enforcement records. (Iowa Code § 598.41 (1)(e).)

How Iowa Courts Determine Custody: The Best Interest of the Child

When the court makes custody determinations, the judge must give great weight to the best interests of the child standard. Iowa law does not provide a specific set of factors for judges to use when deciding custody. Instead, the law defines "best interest of the child" as the opportunity for the child to have maximum continuous physical and emotional contact with both parents unless the contact would cause the child emotional or physical harm. (Iowa Code § 598.1 (1).)

Although Iowa child custody law doesn't provide the judge with specific factors to evaluate, judges will often consider:

  • 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
  • whether either parent has denied or interfered with the child's ability to maintain a frequent and continuing relationship with the other parent (Iowa Code 598.41 (c).)
  • each parent's emotional and environmental stability and wholesomeness, and
  • any moral misconduct committed by either parent.

If the child is of sufficient age and maturity level, the court can consider the child's preference 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. (Iowa Code § 598.12B.)

Parenting Time in Iowa

The law places tremendous importance on a child's right to maintain a relationship with both parents, regardless of the custody determination. If the court finds that it is in the child's best interest for one parent to have sole physical care, the judge will create a parenting time (visitation) schedule for the child and the non-custodial parent. Parents can create a visitation schedule together that works for their family. However, when parents can't agree, the court's typical schedule may include alternating weekends and holidays, as well as more extended visits during the summer and other school breaks. In general, court-ordered parenting time is only a minimum schedule. In other words, if parents agree that the child can spend more time with the non-custodial parent than what the order provides, the court encourages it.

The court can deny or otherwise restrict parenting time if contact with the other parent is not in the child's best interests. For example, in cases where a parent has a history of drug or alcohol abuse, the court may require that parent's attendance in court-supervised rehabilitation before allowing visitation. (Iowa Code § 598.41A.) In other cases, the judge may restrict the visits to a court-approved visitation center or allow only non-overnight visits with the parent.

Modifying Child Custody

Custodial parents cannot interfere with or deny custody or parenting time unless the child is in danger. If one parent believes that the current orders are no longer appropriate for the family, that parent can request a review with the court.

However, the court favors stability for children, so it takes the modification process very seriously. When you file your request for a review, you will need to demonstrate that a modification is necessary because, since the last order, there has been a substantial change in circumstances and that it is necessary to serve the child's best interest. (Iowa Code § 598.21C.)

If the court agrees that modifying the orders is necessary, it will evaluate custody and parenting time using the best interest standard described above.


The Iowa Judicial Branch website offers excellent resources, including links to court forms and do-it-yourself forms.

If you still have questions regarding custody or visitation, you should speak with an experienced family law attorney in your area.

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