Whenever people discuss child custody, a particular phrase keeps emerging again and again—”the best interests of the child.” Although this phrase may sound very vague, its extensive use in child custody proceedings throughout Iowa has rendered its meaning reasonably clear if you understand the legal background behind it.
Courts certainly do treat parental rights as important, especially when mothers and fathers butt heads over the issue. Ultimately, however, the best interests of the child outweigh the rights of either parent or of both parents put together. The child is the focus rather than the parents. This is true not only in Iowa, but throughout the nation.
Child Custody Agreements and the “Best Interests of the Child”
Parents resolve many child custody arrangements through child custody agreements between the parents. Since a family court must approve any child custody agreement, it will presumably reflect the best interests of the child under Iowa law.
If the parents cannot reach an agreement, however, an Iowa court will issue its own ruling. Iowa law requires such a ruling to treat the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration. Family courts tend to favor joint legal custody arrangements. In any case, child custody arrangements cannot derogate against the best interests of the child. However, courts are likely to approve a custody arrangement where both parents are in agreement. The exception is child support, which is required to be addressed in every custody and custody modification case.
What Do Judges Look for in Child Custody Cases?
What do judges look for in child custody cases? Yes, the best interests of the child are paramount. But what, exactly, does that mean? How does it break down? Following are some real-life factors that just about any judge will consider when determining the best interests of the child.
- Whether a lack of frequent contact with both parents would harm the child. Courts presume that a child needs strong relationships with both parents unless proven otherwise.
- The degree to which the parents cooperate with each other on matters affecting the child’s best interests, and whether one or both parents request joint physical care. As between two parents, Iowa courts tend to favor the more cooperative parent when it comes to custody matters. It is sometimes said in the legal profession that the court will often give physical care to the most reasonable parent.
- The extent to which the parents actively engaged with the child before the divorce or separation. Iowa courts are typically skeptical of a parent who takes a sudden interest in their child only when a divorce or separation arises.
- The relationship between each parent and the child before the divorce or separation that triggered the custody proceedings. That being said, a court will not automatically favor the parent who had the closest relationship with the child.
- The parents’ respective living arrangements. A parent who lives in the family home and in the child’s school district may be favored. But, the important thing is to have adequate sleeping arrangements for everyone.
- Geographic proximity. If the parents’ residences are widely separated, a court might favor a physical care arrangement where the child lives primarily with one parent and with the other parent receiving scheduled visitation.
- Any danger to the child that might be caused by a joint physical care arrangement.
- Any history of domestic abuse by either parent, even if it was not directed at the child.
- Any evidence that either parent has ever allowed the child to be in the presence of a registered sex offender or drugs or other illegal substances.
- The status quo. Whenever one parent seeks to change custody arrangements, an Iowa family court is likely to prefer keeping current arrangements, unless there is a good reason not to. Courts consider continuity and stability as vital components of the best interests of the child.
- Abuse or neglect. An Iowa family court will limit contact between a child and a parent who has abused or neglected them. In some cases this might mean supervised visitation only.
Judges may also take additional factors into account, depending on the family’s individual circumstances.
What Do Judges Ignore in Child Custody Cases?
Some factors that may have been considered in years past are no longer considered in Iowa child custody determinations.
The “Tender Years” Doctrine
The “tender years” doctrine, under which courts typically awarded primary physical custody to the mother of children under a certain age, has fallen out of favor in Iowa family courts. Although courts will be more likely to assign the mother primary physical custody while the child is still nursing, once nursing is complete, the father should be given equal consideration.
Under Iowa law, courts generally may not consider the sexual orientation of the parents when making a child custody determination. Likewise, courts are not allowed to consider whether the parents were involved in a “gay marriage” or a “traditional marriage.”
The Child’s Preference
In most custody cases, the court does not even ask the child their preference, because Iowa judges do not like to put children in the middle of custody disputes. If the judge were to permit testimony from the child, the older the child is, the more likely the court will allow the child to testify. The court will also be more likely to hear from a child is that child is represented by their own attorney or guardian ad litem.
The weight that the court gives that preference depends on the age and maturity of the child. The child’s preference is not necessarily dispositive. “I wanna live with Daddy because he lets me eat ice cream for breakfast,” for example, is not likely to persuade a judge.
The Family Legal Matters Lawyers at 303 Legal, P.C., Will Stand and Fight with You
Child custody proceedings are delicate. The stakes couldn’t be higher, yet any conflict that arises must take into account the well-being of the child whose best interests are at stake. At 303 Legal, P.C., we know how to walk this tightrope to ensure the best possible result for both you and your child.
Feel free to fill out our online contact form, call us directly at 319-423-3031, or visit our office in Cedar Rapids, IA. Don’t wait until the last minute. The sooner you contact us, the better your chances of achieving your goals will be.