In Iowa, child custody decisions are influenced by a variety of factors, including the type of custody sought (legal or physical custody, sole custody or joint custody, etc.) and various relevant characteristics of the parents and the child. A court may also ask a third party to investigate and make a custody recommendation.
Iowa courts adjudicate only six or seven thousand divorces per year. Although some of these marriages are childless (and thus do not involve child custody decisions), some unmarried couples also have to deal with child custody issues. All told, child custody decisions are common throughout Iowa, and they exert a significant impact on the state’s family structure.
The “Best Interests of the Child” Standard
Under the “best interests of the child” standard, enforced in every US state including Iowa, a family court’s first priority in decision-making is to place the child’s best interests above those of the parents or a third party. For example, a parent’s right to spend a certain amount of time with his or her child must yield if the child would be better off with less time spent. A judge may overrule the parents or anyone else in favor of the best interests of the child.
Types of Custody
Iowa, like other states, offers more than one type of custody arrangement. Custody can be joint or sole, and it can be legal or physical. The difference between these forms of custody is described below. Keep in mind that, although Iowa courts apply a presumption in favor of joint legal and physical custody, this presumption can be overcome, depending on the circumstances.
Sole custody vs. joint custody
Sole custody means custody rights solely in favor of one parent at the expense of the other parent. Joint custody means the parents share this authority, although the court may have to intervene if a deadlock arises. Either sole or joint custody can apply to either legal custody. Physical care can either be primary or joint.
Legal custody is the right to access to information about, and the right to make decisions about, important matters concerning the child’s upbringing. For example, a parent with sole legal custody may decide which school the child attends, what his religious upbringing will be, what type of medical treatment the child will receive (to the extent that this does not interfere with the child’s best interests), and other important matters. Legal custody can be either sole or joint.
When a family court judge decides whether to award sole or joint legal custody depends on a number of factors, including:
- The respective parent’s mental health;
- Evidence of substance abuse by one or both parents;
- Violent or abusive behavior by either parent;
- Behavior by either parent that may be bad for the child – frequent smoking of marijuana, for example; or
- A history of domestic abuse.
Even if a family judge grants sole legal custody to one parent, the child will not necessarily live with that parent. A parent working 60 hours a week, for example, might be awarded sole legal custody but not primary physical care.
Physical care can be primary or joint, and it is the kind of “custody” that people typically think about in divorce and custody cases. Iowa family courts are trending towards a preference of joint physical care, but in many cases, an Iowa family court will award primary physical care to one parent and visitation rights to the other parent. In extreme cases, a court may award only supervised visitation to one parent.
When deciding whether to award primary physical care to one parent, a court will take into account factors such as:
- The child’s age and maturity;
- The child’s health;
- The child’s educational needs;
- The parents’ age, stability, mental health, physical health, and character;
- Each parents’ ability and motivation to meet the child’s needs;
- The relationship between each parent and the child;
- The relationship between the child and any siblings;
- Whether modifying custody would separate siblings;
- The effect on the child of modifying current custody arrangements;
- The quality of the child’s home environment if current custody arrangements are modified;
- The frequency with which either parent moves, and a move’s likely effect on the child (stability is favored);
- The child’s preference if the child is old enough and mature enough for his or her preferences to be given weight;
- The recommendation of a third party who has investigated the case, including the child’s attorney; and
- Any other relevant information that is available to the court.
Child Custody and Child Support Payments
When the court orders joint physical care, one parent may still be rendered to pay child support to the other parent. Normally, it is the higher-earning parent who is ordered to pay child support. The more time the child spends with the other parent, the higher the child support payments are likely to be.
The Custody Agreement
A custody agreement is a written document, prepared by a minor child’s parents (or their attorneys if applicable), that details for the family court the parents’ agreed-upon plan to raise the child. Its terms may include custody arrangements, visitation, decision-making authority, and child support payments. A custody agreement must be agreed upon by both parents, and if the parents do not agree, the family court will be forced to decide on the terms for the parents.
Even if the parents agree, however, the family court judge is still bound by law to apply the “best interests of the child” standard. If any provisions of the parenting plan deviate from this standard, the family court judge may strike them out of the parenting plan or modify the plan to conform to the “best interests of the child” standard.
Contact 303 Legal, P.C. for Your Legal Needs
If you are involved in a child custody dispute, or if you anticipate being involved in such a dispute, contact 303 Legal, P.C., ASAP for a consultation. You can contact us online, telephone our office directly, or visit our Cedar Rapids office. No matter how you do it, we look forward to hearing from you!