Iowa Divorce Case Law

by Heather Frances J.D. Google
When spouses split, statutes and case law impact their divorce.

When spouses split, statutes and case law impact their divorce.

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Like other states, Iowa has its own state-specific divorce laws, but not all of these laws come directly from state statutes. State appeals courts interpret these statutes and their rulings create case law -- law that comes from previously decided cases. For example, if the Iowa Supreme Court rules that a statute should be interpreted in a certain way, lower courts must follow that decision.

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Property Distribution

Spouses frequently argue over how their property should be divided, and the divorce court will decide property issues when the spouses cannot agree. In 1983, Iowa’s Court of Appeals decided a case called "In re Marriage of Estlund," in which both sides challenged the methods of property distribution in Iowa. The appeals court established that property should be distributed equitably after the trial court considers criteria found in Iowa statutes, including consideration of a spouse's contributions as a homemaker. In this case, the trial court divided the marital property by awarding many of one spouse's personal assets to the other spouse and gave a smaller, income-producing asset to that spouse in return. The higher court ruled that the award, although not equal, was equitable under the circumstances.

Child Custody

When it comes to child custody, Iowa courts must make a reasonable decision that is in the best interests of the child after considering various factors, such as whether each parent is a suitable custodian for the child; whether they can communicate well with each other about the child; and whether there is a history of domestic abuse. In a case titled "In the Interest of C.K.," the Supreme Court of Iowa addressed how courts determine what type of custody arrangement is in the best interests of a child. The court ruled that the best interests of a child are the only determining factors when making custody decisions, regardless of how the parents feel or how tragic the parents’ situations may be.


Iowa courts often do not award alimony, or spousal support, but it is possible for one spouse to be awarded payments in certain circumstances. Before awarding alimony, the court must know how much each spouse earns, how long they were married and what support is provided for the children. The Iowa Supreme Court, in a case titled "In re the Marriage of Anliker," discussed the three types of alimony awarded in Iowa: traditional, rehabilitative and reimbursement. In this case, a disabled wife was given traditional alimony, which is a long-term arrangement, instead of rehabilitative alimony, which provides payments for a shorter period of time to help the recipient spouse get job training to support herself. The Supreme Court decided that traditional alimony was appropriate since there was no evidence that job training or rehabilitation could improve the wife’s skills enough to allow her to support herself despite her disability.

Child Support

In Iowa, the amount of child support is set according to state guidelines, but the Iowa Supreme Court can review child support cases as part of a divorce proceeding or an attempt to modify child support afterward. Whether these cases set precedent for future cases depends in part on the issues discussed and the support guidelines in use at the time because guidelines change frequently. In the case "In re the Marriage of Powell," a lower court had ordered a father to pay child support as part of the divorce, and the mother later asked for an increase in the support amount. The father had recently sold his chiropractic practice, so the trial court decided he had voluntarily reduced his income to avoid paying additional support and ordered him to pay support based on his prior year’s income. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed that the father had voluntarily reduced his income, but nevertheless lowered the amount he would have to pay for child support based on other factors, such as both parents' incomes, as outlined in an older case, "In re Marriage of Zoellner."