Family Law FAQ

man with wedding ring

If you are considering a divorce or need to modify an existing court order, require help with a child custody or support matter, there is a lot you need to know about Iowa law. The Dickinson Law Family Law Practice can help you every step of the way.

Here are answers to frequently asked questions about divorce law in Iowa:

What should I know about divorce in Iowa?

Does Iowa recognize common law marriage?

Do I need a lawyer to get divorced in Iowa?

How do I start a divorce?

What if I do not know where my spouse is?

How much does it cost to get divorced?

What if children are involved in my divorce?

Can I get alimony in my divorce?

What if my spouse and I disagree about bills, custody or child support during the divorce?

What is child custody in Iowa?

How do courts divide property in Iowa?

Should I get a legal separation instead of a divorce?

How do I get my maiden name back in a divorce?

What if I have a prenuptial agreement?

What should I do if my ex isn’t following our custody order?

How is child support calculated?

How do I modify child custody?

How do I modify child support?

 


What should I know about divorce in Iowa?

Iowa is a “no fault” divorce state. That means you do not have to give a reason as to why you want a divorce. The only thing you have to prove is that there has been a “breakdown of the marriage” and that there remains “no reasonable likelihood that the marriage can be preserved.”

There is a 90-day waiting period until you can finalize the divorce. The 90-day period starts when the other party has been served with the divorce petition or has voluntarily accepted service of it.

The Iowa Judicial Branch has divorce forms for parties who do not want to use legal counsel.

To obtain an Iowa divorce, you have to reside here for one year unless your spouse also lives in Iowa and can be served here.


Does Iowa recognize common law marriage?

A common law marriage is a marriage where a marriage license was not obtained. Iowa is one of the few states that recognizes common law marriages; however, it is sometimes difficult to prove. There must be a “holding out” of the relationship as a married couple, such as filing your taxes as married. In addition, there must be a present intent and agreement to be married and continuous cohabitation.


Do I need a lawyer to get divorced in Iowa?

No. If you and your spouse know the terms you want for your divorce, you can use the forms located at the Iowa Judicial Branch website. However, the forms do not provide legal options nor do they provide you the consequences of agreeing to certain provisions. If you have any of the following issues involved, we would strongly encourage you to consult with one of our family law attorneys: child support, child care costs, spousal support, business entities, significant assets or debts, child custody and visitation, if you are pregnant during the pendency of the divorce, if domestic abuse or substance abuse is involved, or if you have a child who is close to college age. Our family law attorneys will have the experience to provide you options related to your divorce to ensure you have the proper safeguards in place and are making an informed decision in the process. 


How do I start a divorce?

You must file a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage in the county in which either you or your spouse reside. There is a filing fee. Upon filing the Petition, the Clerk of Court will usually issue a “Family Law Case Requirements Order,” which will outline the tasks you need to complete the divorce and deadlines within the case, such as the date by which you and your spouse must exchange financial information. These documents need to then be served on your spouse.


What if I do not know where my spouse is?

You must accomplish service of the divorce petition on your spouse. If you do not know where your spouse is located, there may be options, such as publishing notice in a newspaper. You should contact an attorney to help you locate the spouse or to take the steps necessary to serve your spouse in an alternate manner.


How much does it cost to get divorced?

Aside from the filing fee, which is usually the same for everyone, the attorneys’ fees to get divorced usually varies from one case to the next. Note that one attorney cannot represent both you and your spouse. Attorney fees vary depending on the experience of the attorney retained and the matters in dispute. Divorces where child custody, spousal support, or significant assets/debts are in dispute typically cost more in attorney fees. Under Iowa law, you can request your spouse to pay your reasonable attorney fees if you are the prevailing party; however, whether the court awards the fees is up to the judge. If your spouse will not accept service of the divorce petition, you will also have private process server or sheriff service fees. There are other miscellaneous costs you may incur, such as expert fees, depending on the disputed issues of your divorce.


What if children are involved in my divorce?

Under Iowa law, both parents must complete a parenting class that has been approved within that particular district. Since the start of the COVID-pandemic, many courts allow this class to be taken online. You will need to decide who will have custody of the children or whether you will share (joint) custody of the children. You will need to decide who will make the major decisions regarding the children (education, extra-curricular activities, medical, religious, and legal status) or whether you will make these decisions jointly. You will need to decide miscellaneous provisions, such as telephone contact, transportation, holidays, etc. You will also need to establish a child support order.


Can I get alimony in my divorce?

Whether you are entitled to alimony depends on many factors, such as how long you have been married, how you and your spouse have contributed to the marriage, and how the marital property is divided. There are three types of alimony in Iowa, including rehabilitative alimony, reimbursement alimony, and permanent alimony. Whether you are entitled to alimony will largely depend on what your financial need is and the ability of the other party to pay support.


What if my spouse and I disagree about bills, custody or child support during the divorce?

If you cannot work out these issues while the divorce is pending, you can ask the court for a court order to address temporary expenses, temporary child custody, and temporary support (child or alimony).


What is child custody in Iowa?

In Iowa, there are two types of child-related custody. The first is physical custody. There are three types of physical custody: primary physical custody, split physical custody, and shared (joint) physical custody. The second is legal custody. Legal custody concerns major decisions related to the children including their education, extra curricular activities, medical care, religion, and legal status. There are two types of legal custody: joint and sole. In your divorce decree, you will need to select the physical custody and legal custody option that serves your children’s best interests.


How do courts divide property in Iowa?

Iowa is an equitable division of property state. That means that Iowa courts do not have to equally split assets and debts of the marriage. Instead, the court looks at many factors related to the marriage such as contributions to the marriage, the tax consequences of the proposed division, the length of the marriage, etc.


Should I get a legal separation instead of a divorce?

In both a legal separation and a divorce, the Iowa courts can decide child custody, child support, alimony, and property division. The difference is that in a divorce, the parties’ marital status is legally severed, and the parties are free to remarry. In a legal separation, the parties cannot remarry. A legal separation is often sought in cases where the parties’ religious beliefs do not support a divorce, when the parties believe a reconciliation is possible, or when a party needs to stay on the other party’s health insurance plan.


How do I get my maiden name back in a divorce?

In the divorce decree, you can change your name to your previously known name or to your maiden name. If you do not change it through the divorce decree, you will need to see if you’re eligible for a separate name change action, which will have an additional filing fee.


What if I have a prenuptial agreement?

If you have a prenuptial agreement, bring it to the attention of your divorce counsel. He or she can advise you as to whether it encompasses all aspects of the property division or just some of them. A prenuptial agreement does not determine child custody, child support, or spousal support so those are items that would still need to be negotiated.


What should I do if my ex isn’t following our custody order?

Assuming you have a legally binding custody order in place, your recourse to enforce it is through a contempt action. In that proceeding, you will need to prove that your ex willfully and wantonly violated the order. The court may make you attend mediation before the contempt hearing date. You may be able to seek attorney fees and court costs in the contempt action.


How is child support calculated?

Child support is calculated through the Iowa Child Support Guidelines. The Guidelines take into account each party’s income, the number of children subject to support, the cost of the children’s health insurance, and miscellaneous other factors, such as whether a parent is financially supporting a child from another relationship. Iowa recently revised its Child Support Guidelines to give greater weight to child care costs in ordering child support.


How do I modify child custody?

Once child custody is established, the parent who wants custody to be modified must prove a substantial change of circumstances has occurred and that he or she is the “superior” parent. By design, this is an uphill battle, because Iowa courts do not believe it is in the children’s best interests to constantly change child custody. What qualifies as a substantial change of circumstances will vary depending on the particular facts of the family; however, common ones include a parent moving out of state, the child getting older and refusing to live with the custodial parent, and domestic abuse/substance abuse that occurred after the custody order was entered.


How do I modify child support?

In Iowa, you can modify child support through the district court or through the Child Support Recovery Unit (“CSRU”). In the district court, you have to prove a substantial change of circumstances has occurred. This can be proven in a multitude of ways including a showing that under the current guidelines the support amount is 10% different than the support amount previously ordered. Under the CSRU, you must be a registered CSRU participant. The CSRU will then undertake the work of assessing whether an upward or downward modification is appropriate; however, they have specific rules, such as only reviewing support orders every couple years in most circumstances. The benefit of using the district court, as opposed to the CSRU, is that your family law attorney will be able to advise you as to your options along the way and it is likely easier to prove a change of circumstances.