Overview of the Divorce Process in Iowa

A divorce, also referred to as a marital dissolution, is the termination of a marriage by court order. In Iowa, there is a 1 year residency requirement, meaning that at least one of the spouses must have been an Iowa resident for a least a year. If neither spouse has lived in Iowa for a year, then the Iowa courts do not have the authority to grant a divorce. The proper court for filing a divorce petition in Iowa is the court for the county in which either spouse resides.

The spouse who initiates the divorce is called the Petitioner, and the other spouse is called the Respondent. The Petitioner begins the process by filing a petition for divorce and paying a filing fee to the court. Iowa, like other states, allows for “no-fault” divorces, meaning that a spouse need only claim that “there has been a breakdown of the marriage relationship to the extent that the legitimate objects of matrimony have been destroyed and there remains no reasonable likelihood that the marriage can be preserved” [see Iowa Code: Section 598.17]. This eliminates, or at least reduces, the often emotionally painful process of proving “grounds” for divorce that was required in the past. The Respondent is served with legal paperwork informing them of the divorce proceeding, and this service must happen within 90 days of filing, otherwise the court may dismiss the divorce petition. In cases which involves the issues of child custody or visitation, the court will often order the spouses to participate in a parenting class within 45 days of when the Respondent spouse is served with notice of the divorce proceeding, although this requirement is not always imposed.  From the time of service of process until an Iowa divorce can be finalized, there is a 90 day waiting period.

At either party’s request, or on its own initiative, the court can order the parties to participate in conciliation efforts for 60 days. The goal of such an order is to try and avoid the need for a divorce, if the parties can resolve their disagreements. However, in many cases, such efforts are futile, have already been attempted without success, or are not desired. In that situation, the divorce process proceeds.

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Next, each of the spouses discloses their income, assets, liabilities, and other financial data. If the spouses and their attorneys can reach an agreement as to the distribution of assets, then they can prepare an agreed order and submit it to the court for approval. In cases where no agreement can be reached, the court can order the spouses to participate in mediation.  A Temporary Matters hearing is often held to handle short term issues of custody, child support, visitation, and similar issues that cannot wait until the end of the case for a resolution.

When negotiation and mediation have failed, and the spouses remain unable to agree upon the distribution of property, a trial will be conducted so that the court can determine how to distribute property. Iowa is an equitable distribution state, which means that the court will divide all property, except inherited property or gifts received by one spouse, fairly between the spouses after considering all of the following factors:

  • The length of the marriage.
  • The property brought to the marriage by each party.
  • The contribution of each party to the marriage, giving appropriate economic value to each party’s contribution in homemaking and child care services.
  • The age and physical and emotional health of the parties.
  • The contribution by one party to the education, training or increased earning power of the other.
  • The earning capacity of each party.
  • The desirability of awarding the family home or the right to live in the family home for a reasonable period to the party having custody of the children, or if the parties have joint legal custody, to the party having physical care of the children.
  • Other economic circumstances of each party, including pension benefits, vested or unvested, and future interests.
  • The tax consequences to each party.
  • Any written agreement made by the parties concerning property distribution.
  • The provisions of an antenuptial agreement.
  • Other factors the court may determine to be relevant in an individual case.
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Depending upon the circumstances of the parties, the court may also an order requiring spousal support payments to either party for a limited or indefinite length of time after considering all of the following factors:

  • The length of the marriage.
  • The age and physical and emotional health of the parties.
  • The distribution of property.
  • The educational level of each party at the time of marriage and at the time the action is commenced.
  • The earning capacity of the party seeking maintenance, including educational background, training, employment skills, work experience, length of absence from the job market, responsibilities for children under either an award of custody or physical care, and the time and expense necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party to find appropriate employment.
  • The feasibility of the party seeking maintenance becoming self-supporting at a standard of living reasonably comparable to that enjoyed during the marriage, and the length of time necessary to achieve this goal.
  • The tax consequences to each party.
  • Any mutual agreement made by the parties concerning financial or service contributions by one party with the expectation of future reciprocation or compensation by the other party.
  • The provisions of an antenuptial agreement.
  • Other factors the court may determine to be relevant in an individual case.

In cases where children are involved, Iowa courts will generally award joint legal custody to the parents.  An exception is cases in which there has been domestic abuse.  Physical custody can be awarded to either parent or both parents, and a parent who is not awarded physically custody will almost certainly be granted visitation.  The goal of the custody award is to serve the best interests of the child, and the court will consider the following factors in reaching that determination:

  • Whether each parent would be a suitable custodian for the child.
  • Whether the psychological and emotional needs and development of the child will suffer due to lack of active contact with and attention from both parents.
  • Whether the parents can communicate with each other regarding the child’s needs.
  • Whether both parents have actively cared for the child before and since the separation.
  • Whether each parent can support the other parent’s relationship with the child.
  • Whether the custody arrangement is in accord with the child’s wishes or whether the child has strong opposition, taking into consideration the child’s age and maturity.
  • Whether one or both the parents agree or are opposed to joint custody.
  • The geographic proximity of the parents.
  • Whether the safety of the child, other children, or the other parent will be jeopardized by the awarding of joint custody or by unsupervised or unrestricted visitation.
  • Whether a history of domestic abuse exists.
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Iowa courts have the authority to order either or both parents to pay a reasonable amount towards the support of the child. To determine the amount of support, consideration is given by the court to the responsibility of both parents to support and provide for the welfare of the minor child and of a child’s need, whenever practicable, for a close relationship with both parents.  Payments for child support are made to the clerk of the court or the collections service center, and then appropriately distributed.

Finally, either spouse may request as a part of the decree of dissolution that the court change their name to either the name they were given at birth or the name the person had immediately prior to the marriage.

A party who is not satisfied with the outcome of the divorce trial may appeal the ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court.  Appeals have strict deadlines and so they must be timely filed and properly handled for a person to be able to proceed with an appeal.