Under Iowa law, either unmarried parent of a child can seek to have the court establish their respective rights and responsibilities as parents of the child. Essentially, that involves establishing paternity, custody, physical care, visitation, child support, tax exemptions, and other similar matters.
The case begins with the filing of a Petition with the court. It is important that this Petition be properly drafted and served upon the opposing party, as fixing errors in it later are expensive at best, and in the worst situations can result in harm that is impossible to fix later. As an example, I have had clients who have tried to prepare their own Petitions, only to make mistakes that resulted in us having to spend more time (and therefore money) to fix the problem later, such that the client would have saved hundreds of dollars had they retained counsel to handle it properly from the beginning. I have also had clients who lost out on thousands of dollars of child support due to not having handled the beginning of the case correctly, after trying to be their own attorney at first. Indeed, during consultations with potential clients I always take a moment to go over those potential pitfalls.
Once the Petition has been filed and served, the next step is addressing Temporary Matters. Temporary Matters include addressing who will have the child under their care during the case, who will pay child support and in what amount, tax exemptions (if we are nearing tax filing time), and other such things that need to be addressed in the short term. Sometimes there is agreement reached, and very little time needs to be spent on Temporary Matters. In other cases, as is often true when the parties are not getting along, there are court hearings where we argue for our requested version of temporary custody, physical care, and child support. In contested cases, this can be a very important part of the case as the outcome of Temporary Matters can have a lasting impact upon the rest of the case.
The Discovery process also begins after the Petition is filed and served. Discovery is usually the most important part of a custody case, as it is the portion of the case where evidence is gathered and prepared for use in negotiations and/or a Trial. Properly handling Discovery puts us in the best position possible to either reach the kind of negotiated resolution that the client wants, or to be able to win that resolution at Trial.
Finally, the case will either be settled by agreement or will proceed to a Trial. Whether a case is settled or not depends upon many factors, but essentially comes down to wither or not the parties are willing and able to agree. Sometimes, there is complete agreement reached, and the case settles fully. Other times, there is agreement as to some issues but not others, and the result is a trial on just the limited issues where there was no agreement.
At a Trial, we make use of all the hard work that was done during the case. Trial is not a time to learn new things by asking questions, but rather to present the work that was done over the weeks and months before the trial. Evidence and testimony are presented to a Judge, who will consider a variety of factors before making a ruling. The factors the Judge considers for Custody include:
a. Whether each parent would be a suitable custodian for the child.
b. 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.
c. Whether the parents can communicate with each other regarding the child’s needs.
d. Whether both parents have actively cared for the child before and since the separation.
e. Whether each parent can support the other parent’s relationship with the child.
f. 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.
g. Whether one or both the parents agree or are opposed to joint custody.
h. The geographic proximity of the parents.
i. 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.
j. Whether a history of domestic abuse, as defined in section 236.2, exists. In determining whether a history of domestic abuse
exists, the court’s consideration shall include, but is not limited to, commencement of an action pursuant to section 236.3, the issuance
of a protective order against the parent or the issuance of a court order or consent agreement pursuant to section 236.5, the issuance of
an emergency order pursuant to section 236.6, the holding of a parent in contempt pursuant to section 664A.7, the response of a peace
officer to the scene of alleged domestic abuse or the arrest of a parent following response to a report of alleged domestic abuse, or a
conviction for domestic abuse assault pursuant to section 708.2A.
The overriding goal of the Judge is to see that the “Best interest” of the child prevail, meaning that the Judge wants to create a ruling that does what is best for the child. The wishes of either parent are not the Judge’s main concern. For that reason, it is of great importance that actions taken throughout the case by the client are the right actions, so as to avoid harm at Trial. A large part of my work in any custody case deals with that very issue.
Child support in Iowa is set based upon guidelines that take into account the income and expenses of each party, along with dozens of other factors such as how health insurance is provided, other children of each party, and the number of children involved. Iowa law presumes that the child support guidelines produced using the Iowa formula are the right amounts for support, although it is possible to challenge that presumption when there is good cause.
Finally, the Judge will generally take everything under advisement at at the end of the Trial, and issue a written ruling a few days or a few weeks after the end of the trial. Once the written ruling is received, if either party is not happy with the outcome they can seek to have the Judge reconsider some or all of their ruling within 15 days, and/or appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court within 30 days.
The entry of a ruling in a custody case does not truly spell the end of the case, however. Either party can seek a modification of the ruling in the future, which is why it is often said that a custody case is not really over until the child has reached the age of 18.