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Legal Information: Iowa

Iowa Custody

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Laws current as of November 3, 2023

What is custody?

Custody or legal custody means a parent has legal rights and responsibilities for their child. These include making important life decisions about the child’s:

  • legal status;
  • medical care;
  • education;
  • extracurricular activities; and
  • religious instruction.1        

Joint legal custody means both parents have equal rights and responsibilities for their child. When parents have joint legal custody, they participate equally in making the important life decisions that affect the child.2 However, joint legal custody does not necessarily mean that the child will spend equal time with or live with both parents.

Sole legal custody is when one parent has the legal rights and responsibilities to make the important life decisions that affect the child.2 

1 IA ST § 598.1(5)
2 IA ST § 598.1(3)

What is physical care?

Physical care means providing the child’s main home and day-to-day, routine care for the child.1

Joint physical care means the parents have equal rights and responsibilities to provide the child’s main home and take care of the child. Both parents keep homes for the child and share parenting time.2 

Sole physical care, also called primary physical care, means the child regularly lives with one parent who provides day-to-day, routine care for the child.1 The other parent may or may not have visitation. The parent who the child regularly lives with may be called the “custodial parent.” The other parent may be called the “noncustodial parent.” If you have sole physical care, you are supposed to support your child’s relationship with the other parent.3

1 IA ST § 598.1(7)
2 IA ST § 598.1(4)
3 IA ST § 598.41(5)(b)

What is visitation?

Visitation is the time that a noncustodial parent gets to spend with the child. A parent who does not have legal custody or physical care may still get visitation with the child. Visitation may be unsupervised or supervised.

Note: Even if you have a protective order saying the abusive parent must stay away from the child, the judge may make an exception so that the abusive parent can see the child during court-ordered visits. For example, the protective order may say: “Stay away from the child except for court-ordered visitation.”

What are some pros and cons of filing for custody?

There are many reasons people choose not to file for custody. Some parents decide not to get a custody order because they don’t want to get the courts involved. Some parents make an informal agreement that works well for them. Parents may be concerned that going to court will provoke the other parent. They may worry that if they start a custody case, the other parent will suddenly fight for, and may get, more custody or visitation rights than they are comfortable with.

If the other parent is uninvolved with the child now, he or she may become involved just because a case was started. Also, if the other parent fights for custody, the case may drag on for a long period of time, which can be emotionally and financially draining. The court will look into many aspects of your personal life that you may prefer keeping private such as past mental health issues, your criminal record, substance abuse issues, and details of your personal relationships.

However, getting a custody order from a court can give you certain legal rights. Getting a custody order can give you:

  • the right to make decisions about your child; and
  • the right to have your child live with you.

Without a custody order, it is possible that both parents may share these legal rights, even if one parent takes care of the child every day. However, if you file for custody, the other parent may also request these rights, and it will be up to the judge to decide. Under Iowa law, a temporary order of custody will also include a visitation schedule for the noncustodial parent unless the judge decides that visitation is not in the child’s best interest.1

We strongly recommend talking to a lawyer who can help you think through if filing for custody would be best for you, depending on the facts of your situation. You can find legal help by clicking on the IA Finding a Lawyer page.

1 IA ST § 598.10

Should I start a court case to ask for supervised visitation?

If you are not comfortable with the abuser being alone with your child, you might be thinking about asking the judge to order that visits with your child be supervised. If you are already in court because the abuser filed for visitation or custody, you may not have much to lose by asking that the visits be supervised if you can present a valid reason for your request (although this may depend on your situation).

However, if there is no current court case, please get legal advice BEFORE you start a court case to ask for supervised visits. We strongly recommend that you talk to an attorney who specializes in custody matters to find out what you would have to prove to get the visits supervised and how long supervised visits would last, based on the facts of your case.

In the majority of cases, supervised visits are only a temporary measure. Although the exact visitation order will vary by state, county, or judge, the judge might order a professional to observe the other parent on a certain amount of visits or the visits might be supervised by a relative for a certain amount of time – and if there are no obvious problems, the visits may likely become unsupervised. Oftentimes, at the end of a case, the other parent ends up with more frequent and/ or longer visits than s/he had before you went into court or even some form of custody.

In some cases, to protect your child from immediate danger by the abuser, starting a case to ask for custody and supervised visits is appropriate. To find out what may be best in your situation, please go to IA Finding a Lawyer to seek out legal advice.

What is a “Children in the Middle” class?

If you are a parent in a divorce or custody and visitation case, Iowa law requires you to attend a court-approved parenting class about how children are affected by their parents’ separation or divorce.1 The class may be called “Children in the Middle,” “Children in Between,” “Children Cope with Divorce,” or something similar.

You and the other parent are supposed to take this parenting class within 45 days of the court papers being served. You both must take the class before the judge can issue a final divorce decree or custody and visitation order unless the judge has waived your attendance for a good reason (“good cause”).1 Each parent is responsible for arranging to take the class and pay for the cost.2 Contact the clerk of court in your county to find out which classes are accepted in your county. According to the Iowa Courts website, some counties accept online classes, but others don’t.

1 IA ST § 598.15(1) 
2 IA ST § 598.15(2)

What is mediation?

Mediation is a way to try to resolve a dispute without going to trial. A mediator is a trained third party who works with you and the other parent to come to an agreement. You and the other parent would attend one or more sessions with the mediator where you would each get to say what you want and why. Then you would get a chance to respond to each other’s proposal to hopefully reach an agreement. You have the right to have your lawyer present for the mediation.1

During a divorce or custody and visitation case, the judge may order you and the other parent to take part in mediation. However, you can ask the judge to waive mediation if you have a history of domestic abuse.2

1 IA ST § 598.7(4)(a), (4)(c)
2 IA ST § 598.7(1)

What is a parenting plan?

A parenting plan describes the custody and physical care arrangement and spells out when each parent will have time with the child.1 Parents can come to an agreement on their own and submit an agreed parenting plan to the judge. However, if the parents cannot agree, each parent can submit their own proposed plan. Then, the judge will decide and make the order.

If a parent is asking for joint physical care, the judge may require the parents to submit proposed parenting plans that address:

  • how the parents will make decisions affecting the child:
  • how the parents 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 share expenses in addition to court-ordered child support;
  • how the parents will resolve major changes or disagreements affecting the child including changes that arise due to the child’s age and developmental needs; and
  • any other issues the court may require.2

The court has parenting plan forms you can use if you don’t have a lawyer. Find links to get the divorce and custody forms on our IA Court Forms page.

If you are a domestic violence survivor, the parenting plan needs to be safe for you and your child. The best way to get help making a safe plan is to speak with a lawyer who knows about custody and domestic violence. Go to our IA Finding a Lawyer page for legal referrals. However, if you’re on your own without a lawyer, you may find it helpful to read 10 Things to Know About Parenting Plans in Cases Involving Domestic Violence.3

1 See IA R 17.200-Form 229, Form 230; IA R 17.400-Form 429, Form 430.
2 IA ST § 598.41(5)(a)
3 See 10 Things to Know About Parenting Plans in Cases Involving Domestic Violence by Melissa Mangiaracina, JD, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (2019)