Child Custody Options in Iowa

By Mary Jane Freeman

In Iowa, as in most states, child custody issues must be resolved before the court can issue a divorce decree. Depending on the circumstances of your case, the court may establish a sole or joint custody arrangement. For example, if you and your spouse get along and work well together, the court is likely to grant decision-making authority to both of you. This means you both have a say in your child's upbringing, such as where he goes to school and what extracurricular activities he participates in.

Physical vs. Legal

Before the court can issue your divorce degree, it must first settle all matters related to custody. Iowa recognizes both physical and legal custody. Physical custody, sometimes called physical care or physical placement in Iowa, refers to where a child lives. In contrast, legal custody represents a parent's right to make decisions concerning her child's welfare, such as those involving religion, school and health care. When determining the appropriate custody arrangement for your child, the court will base its decision on what is in the best interests of your child.

Joint Custody

Iowa prefers joint custody arrangements. While joint custody means different things in different states, in Iowa it means both parents share legal custody. In other words, parents share decision-making authority and must decide child-related matters together. Joint custody has nothing to do with where the child lives. Therefore, the court could award joint custody to you and your spouse in the divorce, but grant physical custody to only one of you. Since the best interests of the child are paramount, the court will consider several factors when deciding whether to award joint custody. These factors include whether each parent is a sufficient caretaker, parents' ability to communicate with one another, child's emotional and psychological needs, child's wishes, and whether each parent is willing to support the other parent's relationship with the child.

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Sole Custody

Although joint custody is preferred by Iowa courts, sole custody is also a possibility. Sole custody means one parent has legal custody; thus, only that parent has the authority to make decisions concerning the child's welfare. Before the court can award sole custody, it must first determine that joint custody is unreasonable under the circumstances and not in the best interests of the child. For example, when there is a history of domestic abuse, joint custody is unlikely. In Iowa, this creates a rebuttable presumption against joint custody. In addition to this and other factors considered, Iowa courts will also look at whether the child's health, safety and welfare are at risk due to a parent's mental illness or substance abuse. If the parents don't work well together or one parent is not in favor of joint custody, the court will also take this under consideration.

Physical Placement

Once the court has decided on joint or sole custody, it will next decide where your child will live. The court may award joint physical care to both of you, which means the child splits his time between both homes. Another option is an award of primary physical placement to one parent, meaning one parent's home serves as the child's primary residence. In Iowa, joint physical care is typically awarded upon request and when parents already share joint custody. A common schedule focuses on alternating weeks and holidays with each parent. When one parent is granted primary physical placement, the other parent is usually granted visitation rights and ordered to pay child support. As with legal custody, Iowa courts consider several factors when deciding physical custody, including amount of time each parent spends with the child, parents' home environment and schedule, child's age, maturity, health, and social and educational needs, and child's wishes.

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