Iowa Supreme Court Weighs in on Legal Custody Disputes

Iowa Supreme Court Weighs in on Legal Custody Disputes

Posted on 02/02/2024 at 03:05 PM by Regan Conder

Legal custody matters are frequently litigated when parties who have joint legal custody reach an impasse. Legal custody matters concern decisions affecting a child’s legal status, medical care, education, extracurricular activities, and religious instructions. Historically, in Iowa, when parties have been unable to resolve a dispute, a party has asked the district court to act as the tiebreaker. However, in In Re Marriage of Frazier, the Iowa Supreme Court determined district courts do not possess the authority to decide these issues unless it is brought within the context of a modification proceeding.  

In Frazier, parents were awarded joint legal custody through their divorce decree. As joint legal custodians, both parents were awarded equal rights and responsibilities with neither parent having superior rights to the other. Subsequent to the divorce, the Frazier parents disagreed on whether their child should be given the COVID-19 vaccination. As a result, one of the parents asked the district court to determine whether administering the vaccine would be in the child’s best interests. While the requesting parent wanted a directive on the vaccine, the parent did not want to otherwise change or eliminate the other parent’s legal custody rights.

In its ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court found that the requesting parent needed to request relief through a modification proceeding. In other words, the requesting parent would need to show a substantial change of circumstances had occurred and that he or she was the superior caretaker. If successful, the parent would be granted sole legal custody and allowed to make all final legal custody decisions without consulting the other parent.  Because Iowa law favors the status quo, obtaining a modification of legal custody is a substantial undertaking and may prove to be a barrier for parents to obtain timely, inexpensive relief when a legal custody dispute arises.

In Frazier, the Iowa Supreme Court also interpreted the legal custody statute to be an “all or nothing” award. That is, courts cannot parse out legal custody rights and apportion them between parents. For example, to resolve the dispute, the Frazier Court could not award the petitioning parent with sole legal custody on medical matters and jointly allocate the remaining legal custody responsibilities.

Undoubtedly, the Frazier opinion changes the playing field with regard to legal custody matters. For more information on legal custody disputes, contact Regan E. Conder.


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