Podcast Episode 4: Custody and Child Support in Iowa

Episode 4: Custody and Child Support in Iowa


Hello and welcome to The Listening Lawyers Podcast. My name is Stella and I am an attorney with Solutions Law Firm. I’m joined today with my colleague and Solutions Law Firm founder, Dawn Hernandez, who is also an attorney and a mediator. 

  • Hi everyone! Today on our docket we are going to be talking about child custody and child support in Iowa. If you are listening to us from other states, thank you!, but please know that family law is state specific. So while there might be some overlap on specific issues, you absolutely will want to check with a family law attorney in your state. We can, and are, only speaking to the laws of Iowa. And as always, this podcast is not intended to be legal advice. Stella and I are going to be providing a basic understanding of this topic, not a detail analysis for your specific situation. 

First up – Child Custody 

Generally speaking, custody is an umbrella term for two types of custody and refers to 1) where the children live – which we call physical custody – and 2) which parent makes the most of decisions concerning the children – which we call legal custody 

Once I start breaking this down for people I almost always get a groan – “what do you mean there are different types? I just want my kids!” At first glance, I get it, this can seem really complicated, but it really doesn’t have to be. When it comes to custody, the names tend to speak for themselves. 

Physical custody – sometimes we call it physical care – is just what it sounds like – it’s about where the kids are physically spending time and physically living. For the parents awarded physical custody, this means the right and responsibility to maintain a safe home and provide for the children – clothes, food, toys, school supplies, etc. Anything they can make a mess of their room with! 

Legal custody, on the other hand, has very little to do with where the children are physically, and is more about decisions. This includes making decisions about legal status, medical care, education, safety, extracurricular activities, religious practices – basically, all major life decisions and then the small decisions, too. (§598.1(5)). 

  • Ok, but where does sole custody come into play at? 

That’s a great question. Ok, so we know custody is an umbrella term and is made up of physical and legal custody. If we think of custody as being two pronged – one prong physical and one prong legal – each prong breaks down further. So when discussing and negotiating physical custody, divorcing parents will either walk away with joint physical custody or sole physical custody. And once again, the terms themselves help guide us through the definition of each and which is better for your situation. 

Joint physical custody, sometimes called shared care in Iowa, is just that, shared care. Both parents have the right and responsibility of maintaining a safe home for their children. Iowa has a preference to make shared care 50/50, but there are actually many variations on how shared care looks. It all just depends on your individual situation and circumstances. I’ll go into detail on this in just a little bit. 

So let’s think where we’re at. We’ve got the umbrella of custody, and on the physical custody prong there is joint physical custody, and sole physical custody. This means one parent will have the responsibility of maintaining the home and typically do not share this with the other parent. 

  • Does legal custody break down further as well? 

Yes! It absolutely does. I already briefly explained that legal custody is all about who gets to make decisions regarding the children’s upbringing, from medical to school, to religion and everything else in between. The courts in Iowa, just like for physical custody, want parents to aim for 50/50. Which makes sense. Just because you’re divorcing does not mean you stop being parents. You both remain parents, and you both have the right to make decisions regarding your child. Joint legal custody means that neither parent can make life altering decisions for the children without first talking with the other parent.  

Sole legal custody is a different matter and is the exact opposite of joint legal custody. The parent awarded sole legal custody is the only parent with the right to make any decisions about the children. Honestly, though, this isn’t as common as what the movies make us think.  

  • Oh, ok, so when this happens the other parent loses their rights. 

No. This is why it’s incredibly important to talk to an attorney because parental rights are constitutionally protected. Just because parents don’t have joint physical or joint legal does not mean one parent loses their rights. Rights must be terminated by a Court and it’s usually a separate action. 

  • You mentioned joint physical custody isn’t always 50/50. What did you mean? 

That’s correct. Joint isn’t always 50/50, though it typically is. The State of Iowa presumes that 50/50 is what is best for the children and this is what we strive to achieve. But we all know that sometimes this isn’t possible. Perhaps one of the reasons you are even considering a divorce is because one parent accepted a job and lives elsewhere during the week. But coming home on the weekends hasn’t worked out. In a case like this, it’s not feasible or practical to expect kids to change schools for the days they spend with each parent. That is not a recipe for success! If, say, you live in Des Moines and your kids are at Roosevelt, but Dad works in Kansas City during the week and will now move there full time after the divorce, the Court is going to keep the kids in the school they are used to. 

But that’s just one example. I had a client who both parents work in the Des Moines Metro, but with the divorce, Dad moved in with family outside the metro. It’s not far, he can still get to work and the kids to school, but the distance makes it hard. So his attorney and I created a schedule where it is temporary and not at all 50/50 until he finds a new house. The important thing to remember here, is that the State of Iowa is going to focus on what is the Best Interest of the Children. This is a legal standard that each divorcing couple has to make sure their agreement meets. But how we do this and the details of what qualifies as what is in the Best Interest of the Children will often look slightly different when it comes to details. 



Ok, the other main issue of a divorce is usually child support. 

In Iowa, parents with minor children have a legal obligation to support their minor children, and this includes children between the ages of 18 and 19 who are engaged full-time in completing high school. Some people tend to focus on the age of 18 as being the end of child support, but it’s actually a combination of age and completion of high school. 

Probably the biggest question I am asked during a divorce consultation is a variation of “how much” and “how is child support calculated”?? In Iowa, the Judiciary has adopted what we call the Iowa Child Support Guidelines. For those of you who have personalities that want to read more about it, these guidelines are housed in Chapter 9 of the Iowa Court Rules – a simple Google search will get you there. But for those of you who the thought of reading through court rules makes you shiver, keep listening as we take you through the basics. 

I think the best starting point is that both parents have a duty to support their children, and this means that both parents have to pay. Generally speaking, courts require the noncustodial parent to make payments. 

  • Wait, I thought you said both parents have to pay 

Yes, I did, and they do. The child support guidelines are based on income. Well there are a few more factors that are considered, but the bulk of it is based on income. Typically, both parents are not making the same amount, therefore, each parent, through their attorney, fills out the Child Support Guideline Worksheet and there is a formula used to calculate child support. So for example, if Dad makes an annual salary of $78,000 and Mom makes an annual salary of $62,000, the formula will calculate a number for each of them based on their income. Iowa law has the parent with the greater income make support payments, but only at a rate that makes up the difference between what each parent must provide. 

So, if the guidelines calculate monthly child support for parent 1 at $900 a month and child support for parent 2 at $545 a month, parent 1 will pay parent 2 $355 a month. The law assumes that parent 2 will be spending the $545 assigned to them on the children. 

Logistically speaking, when we, as the attorneys, sit down to calculate child support, we need information for both parties. This information includes gross and net monthly income, where the children are living, where the children’s medical care is provided through, and tax information. 

  • What happens if one parent has two jobs but quits one of the jobs to avoid having to pay as much money in child support? 

In Iowa, the courts do not recognize a voluntary reduction in income as a sufficient reason to reduce child support. So in your question, a person purposely trying to avoid child support will be assessed at the income level he or she was at prior to leaving one job.  

Given that we are living in a time of a pandemic I think it’s also important to talk about what happens if you lose your job because of a downsize. There’s a bit that goes into this analysis so don’t take this as legal advice, but generally speaking, you are still obligated to pay child support. If you are recently unemployed, speak with an attorney sooner rather than later to figure out the details of your situation. Connect with the Unemployment Office. In some cases, if you qualify for unemployment, child support can be deducted from this benefit.  


  • So once child support is calculated, how is it paid each month? 

The court will direct how payments are to be made and it is never paid from one parent to the other. All child support payments must be sent to either the clerk of court or the Child Support Recovery Unit, which is through the Iowa Department of Human Services. 

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