Both legal and biological parents have rights and responsibilities to care for their children. When parents separate in cases like divorce, separation, and paternity determinations, child custody may allow both parents the right to spend time with and have a say in raising their child. Child custody determinations can be emotional and stressful for parents. However, working with a Des Moines child custody attorney can help you advocate for your interests and protect your children.

Parents can work together to create a custody arrangement, or the court can create one. Either way, the custody arrangement must be court-approved. The goal is always to meet the interests of the child.

Child Custody Types in Iowa

Child custody in Iowa, like most states, is divided into physical and legal custody.

  1. Legal custody is the right of a parent to make important decisions for their child and the right to access information about their child.
  2. Physical custody, also called physical placement or physical care, is where a child lives primarily.

Each of these types of custody may be awarded to only one parent, making it sole custody, or to both parents, making it joint custody. The court will consider each parent’s wishes and the circumstances of the family when deciding on a custody schedule or approving a proposed schedule.

Understanding the Specifics of Legal Custody

Joint legal custody is the most common form of legal custody. Joint legal custody means that both parents have the same rights to make decisions for their child, including decisions about:

  • Education
  • Safety
  • Healthcare
  • Mental health care
  • Legal status
  • Living environment
  • Extracurriculars
  • Religious upbringing

The court prefers this because both parents have a say in how a child is raised, have the right to access information about them, and have the right to ask questions about important matters related to their child. For sole custody to be ordered, the court must see convincing, clear evidence that joint legal custody is not in the child’s interests.

When parents want to make an important decision, they must either have reached an agreement previously, agree on the issue, or consent to a decision. This ensures each parent is present in these important decisions.

Sole legal custody is rarer, and it only allows one parent to make these decisions. The court might award sole legal custody for one of the following reasons:

  • Parents are incapable of communicating or communicating safely
  • A parent’s mental health disorders are negatively affecting their children and the decisions they make for their children
  • A parent’s substance abuse disorder
  • Parental behavior that is bad for their children
  • A parent’s abusive actions toward family, including their children
  • A parent’s history of domestic abuse to their co-parent

The family courts in Iowa aim to provide the most contact between parents and children possible unless significant harm is likely to occur.

Understanding the Specifics of Physical Custody

Joint physical custody occurs when both parents have equal and frequent care of the child. Primary physical custody occurs when one parent is the custodial parent, and the child primarily lives with them. In this case, the other parent typically has visitation rights. In some serious cases, the non-custodial parent will have limited, supervised, or no visitation rights. When deciding which arrangement is preferable, the court will consider:

  • The ability and willingness of each parent to be a suitable custodial parent to the child
  • Each parent’s ability to communicate with the other about the child’s needs
  • The involvement and active care of each parent in their child’s life before and after separation
  • The relationship between the child and their parents and siblings
  • Whether awarding custody in a certain arrangement would separate siblings
  • Whether the child’s psychological and emotional development will suffer with less contact from both their parents
  • Each parent’s age, stability, mental health, and physical health
  • The child’s current age, maturity, mental health, and physical health
  • Each parent’s ability to support their co-parent’s relationship with their child
  • How close parents live to each other
  • The child’s wishes, the strength of their opposition, and the age and maturity of the child
  • If one or both parents want or don’t want joint custody
  • If the safety of the child, other children, or co-parent will be jeopardized in a joint custody arrangement or with unrestricted visitation
  • If there is a history of domestic abuse
  • If a parent has allowed custody of or unsupervised access to any child knowing the person is a registered sex offender


Q: What Are the Custody Options in Iowa?

A: In Iowa, the custody options are joint or sole legal custody and joint or sole physical custody. Either one or both parents have the right to make decisions and access information about their children, depending on the legal custody arrangement. Sole physical custody is held by a primary custodial parent, with the other parent having visitation rights, and joint physical custody allows both parents equal parenting time.

Q: What Does a 50-50 Custody Arrangement Look like in Iowa?

A: There are several possible arrangements for 50-50 custody in Iowa. A 50-50 custody arrangement occurs when both parents have near-equal parenting time with their children and have equal parenting rights and responsibilities. The most common arrangements for 50-50 custody are alternating every week or two weeks with each parent, splitting each week in half, or other options.

Q: At What Age in Iowa Can a Child Decide Which Parent to Live With?

A: In Iowa, children can only legally decide which parent or where they want to live when they are 18 years old and not a child. Before turning 18, a child’s preference is not set to a specific age. The court can consider a child’s wishes and is more likely to listen to the wishes of an older and more mature child. However, the court will always prioritize the child’s interests, so if their preferences clash with their interests, the court is not required to listen to a child’s preference.

Q: What Is the Most Common Type of Custody Arrangement in Iowa?

A: A common type of custody arrangement in Iowa is joint legal custody, as it allows both parents to have a say in important information and decisions about their child. Physical custody may be either joint or sole depending on the needs of a family, although there is not a presumption in Iowa that one is better.

The court may lean toward joint physical custody, but this is not always practical or possible. If the court awards sole physical custody, it will likely provide significant visitation rights to the non-custodial parent.

Contact Stange Law Firm

Whether you are negotiating a child custody arrangement or advocating for a modification, we can help. Contact Stange Law Firm today.