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Iowa Child Custody and Support - jump directly to Iowa Child Support section

Agreements as to Child Custody
Most of our Iowa divorce clients come to us with an agreement between the parties on custody of the children. So two good people put their heads together and come up with a plan for what typically ends up being joint legal custody (see below) and primary physical custody assigned to one parent and visitation to the other.

Custody issues are your #1 opportunity to avoid tension and $ cost in your Iowa dissolution. If as a couple you can come to terms on this without litigation, you will have a much more pleasant experience and more importantly, your kids will too.

Although the court normally goes along with your plans, the Iowa District Court Judge is not bound by these agreements. Naturally there are times when one parent presents a danger of some sort to the children and the other parent may need to litigate custody to protect the kids and it is right to do so.

Joint Legal Custody is Most Common
Unless otherwise ordered, joint legal custody is presumed. Deviation requires compelling circumstances. This means you are jointly involved in making important decisions about your child including where they live or attend school, religious instruction, health care etc. Iowa courts prefer joint legal custody unless there is a history of abuse. Most Iowan’s find that joint legal custody works quite well. It feels good knowing your opinion is just as important as your former spouses with respect to raising your kids. The statutory exception to joint legal custody is where there has been domestic abuse.

Joint legal custody is not the same as joint physical custody. Normally you have joint legal custody and have primary physical custody with one spouse. See Iowa Code Section 598.1(5).

Joint Physical Care More Common in Iowa - Uncontested Cases
Where the divorce is uncontested and both parties are actively engaged in child rearing and are on good terms, it is possible to get joint physical care now in Iowa, although it can depend some on the Judge. If you have joint physical care, child support calculations are made on both parents. If for example, under Iowa Child Support Guidelines one parent would pay $750 (if the other had primary physical care) and the other $500 due to lower income, the child support would likely be around $250, so there is an offset to balance it out since physical care (custody) is shared.

This is a big change in Iowa divorce. Until not too long ago, Iowa Courts tended to award primary physical care to the mother unless she had some major problems like drugs or alcohol. But Iowa Courts now recognize that fathers are often much more engaged with children than in the past and those bonds must be protected. The key is collegiality between the parties. Yet another reason to keep it civil.

When the divorce is contested, Joint physical custody is unlikely, So you will normally have primary physical custody for one parent and visitation for the other. Many parents find that the time they spend with their kids after a divorce is more engaged and rich than it was before. Kids who yawn at their ever-present still married parents will often look for stronger emotional connections with the non-custodial parent after the divorce, especially if you make them a high priority in your life, an unexpected treat! See Hansen Joint Custody Case and Divorce and families.

How Iowa Courts Decide Disputed Custody - Best Interest of the Child
The first consideration in determining custody in Iowa is who has been the historical care giver, see In Re Roberts, 545 NW 2d 340. When they are called upon to decide on custody, courts here in Des Moines and all over Iowa apply the “best interest of the child” standard and also look for answers to questions like:

  • Which parent is best able to meet the needs of the child.
  • Age, maturity and health of the child.
  • Emotion, social, moral and educational needs of the child.
  • Age, stability, health and character of the parents including substance abuse.
  • Stability of the home environment, staying put versus frequent moves.
  • Ability of each parent to provide emotional support to the child.
  • Ability to provide material support (housing, food, clothing, education).
  • Will this parent put the needs of the child ahead of their own?
  • Strength of the relationship between each parent and the child.
  • Preference of the child, especially with older kids.
  • Whether awarding custody would separate siblings – best avoided if possible
  • Will this parent encourage contact with the non-custodial parent?
  • The relationships between the child and other siblings.
  • The effect on the child of changing their current residence and custody.
  • Any history of violence or abuse by a parent.
  • Reports from third parties.
  • Other factors considered important by the court.

As you can imagine, our Iowa family court judges have their hands full in deciding custody. Unfortunately parties who have a vested interest in cooperation for the sake of the kids have an incentive to throw mud at the other during these battles. Since we are all human and we all error, there is something bad to be said about everyone. But parents can choose to keep it as civil as possible if they want to for the benefit of the children and most Iowan’s do.

Temporary child custody orders are available in case you need a ruling as soon as possible after the filing of your petition in contested cases. See Iowa Code, Child Support.

Grandparent Visitation
Grandparents or others who are seeking visitation should be aware that Iowa Courts allow the custodial parent to veto 3rd party visitation. Of course, if the non custodial parent has visitation, grandparents can see the kids during those visits.

Sole Custody
In some cases, Iowa Judges will award sole legal and physical custody to one parent. To do so, the Judge must find by clear and convincing evidence that joint custody is unreasonable and not in the best interest of the children. Iowa courts cannot automatically award joint custody where there is a history of domestic abuse. This can include events such as police being called to the home re. alleged domestic abuse, applying for a protective order, or an arrest of conviction for domestic abuse. See Child Support Basics and Iowa Domestic Abuse help.

Factors considered by the Court in awarding sole custody:

  • Are both parents suited to raise the child?
  • Emotional Impact on the child from lack of contact with a parent.
  • Ability of parents to communicate about the needs of the child.
  • Extent of involvement with the child by each parent (the more the better).
  • Does the parent foster the child’s relationship with the other parent?
  • The wishes of the child.
  • Agreement of the parties.
  • How far apart the parties live.
  • Safety of the child and custodial parent if there is joint custody.
  • History of domestic abuse if any.

Children in the Middle Course
Iowa courts require parents of minor children going through marriage dissolution to complete a course called Children in the Middle. The course helps to familiarize us with what effect our divorce has on our kids and how to help them cope. Normally you will take this course during the 91 day waiting period before your case can be finalized with a divorce decree.

DMACC has a Children in the Middle class and offers the three hour course at DMACC Southridge Center. Unity point also does a Des Moines children in the middle class. See the Effects of Divorce on Children.

Unmarried Moms
These days, more and more parents are not married. Under Iowa law, a mother who is unmarried at the time of the birth of the child, and at all times until custody is disputed already has complete custody, See Iowa Code Section 600B.40. Claims of paternity must be shown by a preponderance of the evidence. See Iowa Child Custody questions and answers.

Iowa Child Support

Historically, Iowa divorce courts have awarded one parent primary physical care of children and the other parent has paid child support. That is still often the case, but there are also cases now where physical care is joint, just like legal custody is. This is most likely to be approved by the Judge if you have an uncontested divorce where the parties are cooperating well with each other and both parties have been very engaged in parenting. If the divorce is contested, the Judge will likely be uncomfortable awarding joint physical care since a high level of cooperation is needed to make it work.

If your Judge approves joint physical care, then we calculate child support for each party. The starting point for a final order on child support then is the difference between the two calculations. For example, if the child support guidelines call for a $750 monthly child support payment by the Petitioner or $500 from the Respondent, the child support may end up being around $250 from the Petitioner if physical care is joint. Of course, there may be adjustments to this number for expenses like health insurance as indicated below.

If as is often the case, the Judge awards primary physical care to one party and visitation to the party paying child support, there is no offset, so in the case above, if the Respondent was the one paying support, they would pay around $500/month.

"But we don't want any child support"

Iowa Judges are required to put the interests of our children first in divorce cases. So our Judges tend to follow the child support guidelines pretty closely even if the parties don't want support. But if you do end up with joint physical care in your uncontested case and your income is about the same, your child support may be low if any is awarded at all.

Iowa Child Support Estimator
The Department of Human Services offers an Iowa child support estimator. Best not to rely on this as gospel since anything presented to the court has to be approved, but it may give you a general idea. There is a strong preference in Iowa law to apply the child support guidelines unless there is a very good reason not to. If there is, the judge has to make a clear finding and articulate it in their decision.

As a rule, child support calculations do include overtime (unless it is an anomaly) and part time income like National Guard but excludes bonus income.

Iowa child support can be increased based on the costs of health insurance since spousal benefits are lost due to the divorce. The Department of Human Services helps with Iowa Child Support.

Ends at Age 18 or 19
Child support continues until age 18 or if the child is still in high school continues to 19. Support can continue beyond age 18 for children with disabilities.

In some cases, the court will also order the person paying child support to subsidize the child’s college education so long as they earn good grades. This is interesting since there is no similar requirement for parents who do not divorce. Hence, Iowa divorce can actually accrue an economic benefit to children. See Child Support Termination Age.

Financial Statements
The parties are required to provide a Financial Affidavit with information to the court on income, expenses, property including real estate, cars, life insurance, cash and bank accounts, household items, pensions, IRA’s, 401k’s, other investments and other assets of significant value. See, sample Iowa Divorce Financial Affidavit. In some cases, the court will waive this requirement with agreement by both parties. See Iowa Divorce and Property Settlement.

Iowa Child Support Recovery administers child support payments through payroll deduction. Most people find this an easy way to handle paying their child support. The deduction does not presume you are trying to avoid payment, it is just the most secure and convenient approach. See Child Support questions and answers.

Resources for Child Custody and Support in Iowa
See Iowa State Bar: Child Custody. Wikipedia on Divorce and Child Custody. Findlaw has an Iowa child support worksheet online although you may need a PHD in accounting to figure it out. See Iowa District Court Boundries for a map showing which judicial district your county is in. Polk County and Des Moines are in District 5. Back to DesMoinesIowaDivorce main page. Jeff’s Des Moines Bankruptcy website offers much more information on filing Chapter 7 in Des Moines. See Jeff’s page on Divorce & Bankruptcy.