Iowa Child Custody Laws

Learn how child custody works in Iowa, including parenting plan requirements, how judges decide when parents can't agree, how to change existing custody arrangements and when grandparents can get visitation.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
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If you're a parent facing divorce, or you were never married to your child's other parent, you'll have to deal with the question of which parent the child will primarily live with, how much time the other parent will have with the child, and who has the right to make important decisions about the child's upbringing. Even if you divorced years ago, you might need to change your current parenting arrangement. Here's how Iowa law deals with these issues.

Types of Child Custody in Iowa

There are two types of child custody in Iowa: legal and physical. In Iowa's laws, physical custody is called "physical care." Both physical and legal custody can be granted to both parents (creating a joint custody situation), or to one of the parents alone ("sole" custody).

Legal Custody

"Legal custody" (or simply "custody" in Iowa's laws) refers to parents' rights and responsibilities to make important decisions affecting the child's upbringing, including:

  • legal status
  • medical care
  • education
  • extracurricular activities, and
  • religious instruction.

When a parent has sole legal custody, that parent will have the authority to make all of these decisions independently, without consulting the other parent. When both parents have joint legal custody, they'll need to agree on how to handle significant issues that affect the child's well-being. If they can't agree, they'll have to go back to court to ask a judge to decide the issue.

(Iowa Code § 598.1(3), (5) (2024).)

Physical Care

"Physical care" refers to the parents' rights and responsibilities to provide a home and routine care for the child. (Iowa Code § 598.1(7) (2024).)

When the parents have joint physical care, both of them will maintain a home for the child, provide routine care, and share parenting time. However, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll have the child for an exactly equal amount of time—roughly equal is close enough. (Iowa Code § 598.1(4) (2024); In re Marriage of Brown, 778 N.W.2d 47 (Iowa Ct. App. 2009).)

Even when one parent has sole physical care, the other parent will usually have the right to spend time with the kids (more on that below). Traditionally, this has been called visitation, but Iowa is beginning to replace this older term with "parenting time." Parents will have a schedule of parenting time that lays out the details on when each of them will care for or visit with their kids.

Can Parents Agree on Child Custody?

You and your child's other parent can always agree on how you'll handle parental responsibility and parenting time after you separate or divorce. If you're having trouble settling your differences, you might be able to reach an agreement after meeting with a mediator. In fact, the judge may require you to participate in mediation if you haven't agreed by the time you file for divorce (or start a separate custody proceeding) and one of you is requesting joint custody. (Iowa Code § 598.41(2)(d) (2024).)

When parents propose an agreement for joint physical care, that agreement must address all of the following:

  • how the parents will make decisions affecting the child
  • how they'll will provide a home for the child
  • how the child's time will be divided between the parents
  • how each parent will facilitate the child's time with the other parent
  • how the parents will make arrangements for any child-related expenses that exceed court-ordered child support
  • how the parents will resolve any major changes or disagreements affecting the child (including changes that come up because of the child's age and developmental needs), and
  • any other issues the judge may require.

(Iowa Code § 598.41(5)(a) (2024).)

A judge will review the agreement to ensure that it's in the child's best interests. Under Iowa law, it's generally in the child's best interests to have as much contact with both parents as possible, unless that would directly lead to the child's physical harm or significant emotional harm. (Iowa Code § 598.1(1) (2024).)

How Do Judges Make Custody Decisions in Iowa?

If you aren't able to reach a custody agreement, a judge will hold a hearing to evaluate the evidence and make a decision for you. When one parent has requested joint legal custody or physical care, the judge must consider all of the relevant circumstances, including:

  • whether each parent would be a suitable custodian for the child
  • whether the parents can effectively communicate with each other regarding the child's needs and support each other's relationship with the child
  • whether both parents have actively cared for the child before and since they stopped living together
  • whether the lack of contact and attention from both parents would hurt the child's development and emotional needs
  • the child's custody preference (taking into consideration the child's age and maturity)
  • how close the parents live to one another
  • whether the safety of the child or the other parent will be at risk if the judge awards joint custody or unsupervised visitation with a parent
  • any history of domestic abuse, and
  • whether a parent has allowed a known registered sex offender to have custody of or unsupervised access to the child.

The Iowa Supreme Court has added other factors to this list, including:

  • the child's relationship with both parents and any siblings
  • the child's educational, social, and other needs
  • the effect on the child of continuing or changing the current living situation
  • each parent's home environment, and
  • the recommendation of a custody investigator or an attorney for the child.

Also, the court has said that the parents' ability to communicate effectively is the "critical question" when deciding whether joint physical care is appropriate.

(Iowa Code § 598.41 (2024).) In re Marriage of Fennelly and Breckenfelder, 737 N.W.2d 97 (Iowa 2007).,

Parenting Time (Visitation)

When one parent has sole physical care of the child, in most cases the other parent will have regularly scheduled parenting time with the child. Iowa's policy is to encourage maximum physical and emotional contact between the parents and the child, and a parent who has physical care is expected to support the other parent's relationship with the child. (Iowa Code § 598.41(5)(b) (2024).)

Split Custody and Sibling Visitation

Sometimes, when parents have more than one child, the judge will award each parent the physical custody of one (or more) of the children. In Iowa, the judge must order visitation between the children when one parent makes that request and it would be in the kids' best interests. (Iowa Code § 598.41(6) (2024).)

Visitation for Parents With Criminal Histories

Iowa law has special restrictions on visitation by parents who have been convicted of certain crimes.

  • Sex offenses. Parents who have been convicted of a sex offense against a minor won't be entitled to visitation with their kids while they're still incarcerated. After they're out on any type of conditional release, these parents must successfully complete any treatment program that the court has required before they can get visitation. (Iowa Code § 598.41A (2024).)
  • Murder of the other parent. If one parent is convicted of first-degree murder for killing the other parent, a judge may not award or enforce parenting time for the murderer unless it's in the child's best interests. Before making that decision, the judge must consider the relevant circumstances, including whether the child is mature enough to agree to see that parent and the recommendation of a professional who has evaluated or is representing the child. (Iowa Code § 598.41B (2024).)

Modifying Custody and Visitation in Iowa

To change child custody orders in Iowa, the parent must file an application to modify the order. The rules for granting the request depend on the type of modification requested.

Requesting a Change in Custody

When a parent requests a change in the allocation of legal custody or physical care—such as by requesting a change to sole or joint physical care—the judge may modify the order only if:

  • there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the existing order was issued
  • the judge hadn't contemplated the change at that time
  • the change is more or less permanent, and
  • the change relates to the child's welfare.

(In re Marriage of Brown, 778 N.W.2d 47 (Iowa Ct. App. 2009).)

Generally, what counts as a qualifying change of circumstances will depend on the specific circumstances and whether the change negatively affects the child. Iowa law allows judges to consider a parent's relocation with the child as a qualifying change (if the move would be at least 150 miles away). But at least one Iowa court has found that removing children from the state, by itself, doesn't necessarily count. (In re Marriage of Day, 314 N.W.2d 416 (Iowa 1982).)

Here are a few examples of situations that did qualify as changed circumstances warranting a custody modification in some cases:

  • Discord between parents that had a disruptive effect on the child's life. (Melchiori v. Kooi, 644 N.W.2d (Iowa App. 2002).)
  • Domestic violence, combined with a decrease in a parent's ability to provide a stable home environment—such as by marrying a violent new spouse and having drugs in the house. (In re Marriage of Smiley, 518 N.W.2d 376 (Iowa 1994).)
  • A parent's frequent moves and "nomadic existence." (Petition of Anderson, 530 N.W.2d 741 (Iowa App. 1995).)
  • A parent's failure to keep her promise to refrain from inappropriate behavior that amounted to interfering with the other parent's right to visitation and contact with the child. (In re Marriage of Wedemeyer, 475 N.W.2d 657 (Iowa App. 1991).)

Modifying a Parenting or Visitation Schedule

When a parent requests a modification in the parenting time or visitation schedule, Iowa courts aren't as strict as they are with requests to change custody or physical care. The requesting parent must show only that there has been a material change in circumstances since the initial order, and that the requested modification is in the child's best interests.

The reason behind the lower standard is that the best interests of the child are usually served by having a continuing association with the noncustodial parent. (In re Marriage of Salmon, 519 N.W.2d 94 (Iowa App. 1994).)

Grandparent Visitation in Iowa

Although grandparents are often important people in a child's life, they're not automatically entitled to visitation with their grandchild. In Iowa, grandparents have a legal right to request court-ordered visitation if their child dies, leaving their grandchild with the surviving parent. Great-grandparents may also exercise this right.

However, Iowa law presumes that the surviving parent's objection to the grandparent's visitation is in the child's best interests. In order to overcome that presumption, the grandparent must prove all of the following:

  • the surviving parent has impaired judgment or is otherwise unfit to make that objection
  • the grandparent has established a substantial relationship with the child, and
  • the visitation would be in the child's best interests. .

      The law spells out some of the evidence that could support the grandparent's request. For example, as evidence of a strong relationship with the child, a grandparent could point to frequent visitation for at least a year, voluntary financial support for at least six months, or providing the child with a home for six months or more. Evidence that could support claims of a parent's impaired judgment include child abuse or neglect, substance abuse, diagnosed mental illness, or a demonstrated inability to promote the chld's well-being.

      (Iowa Code § 600C.1 (2024).)

      Resources and Help With Child Custody

      You can find the most recent versions of Iowa's child custody and divorce statutes on the Iowa Legislature's website. If you're considering representing yourself in a child custody matter, check out the Iowa Judicial Branch's website dedicated to people without an attorney. Iowa Legal Aid also has an excellent FAQ on Iowa custody and visitation.

      However, if you and your child's other parent continue to be at odds about your custody arrangements—even after trying mediation—you might want to speak with a lawyer. An experienced family law attorney can evaluate your situation, help you negotiate a settlement from a position of strength, and protect your parental rights as well as your child's welfare.

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