In Iowa, parents who have joint legal custody of a minor child must consult one another and reach agreements on major decisions in various areas including medical care, education, extracurriculars, and religious upbringing. In the best-case scenario, parents work together, have constructive discussions, and reach an agreement that works for everyone. But, when that’s not possible, parents have a few avenues to resolve the dispute.
The Iowa Court of Appeals, in a case called In re Marriage of Frazier, recently confirmed that the district court can act as a tiebreaker when joint legal custodians are at an impasse. In that case, the Fraziers, who were divorced in 2014, tried but failed to reach an agreement at mediation regarding whether their child should be vaccinated. In 2022, Mary Frazier filed an “Application for Vaccination Determination” with the Court, asking the court to decide the vaccination issue. The District Court disagreed that it had authority to break the parents’ tie, and Mary appealed. The Court of Appeals, in its Decision issued June 21, 2023, held that the district court does have the ability to break a tie in a co-parenting impasse. The Iowa Supreme Court has granted an Application for Further Review of this case, which means that the law could change in the near future. However, unless and until the Iowa Supreme Court clarifies the law further, when parents determine that an agreement cannot be reached on a joint legal custody issue, either parent can file an application with the Court asking the Court to break the tie. The Court will consider evidence from both parents on what decision is in the best interest of the child and will enter an Order that the parents must follow. Common areas of disagreement where parents ask the Court to decide are medical care, mental health care, and school enrollment.
Parents who struggle to make joint legal custody decisions may wish to explore methods of alternate dispute resolution. Parents who can negotiate agreements on joint legal custody issues benefit because they receive an outcome that they can control, as opposed to placing their case in the hands of a judge who knows little about their situation. In addition, the cost of resolving the case outside of court can be significantly lower, and working together to resolve issues through alternate methods can help keep the co-parenting relationship amicable. Mediation and parenting coordination are two great options for parents who need help reaching agreements in their custody case.
Mediation is a meeting, usually conducted by an experienced family law attorney, that is used to help parties reach agreements in their case. Mediation is often court-ordered but can be done voluntarily at any time, regardless of whether a case has been filed with the Court. Caucus-style mediation, where the parties are in separate rooms and the mediator moves back and forth between rooms, is popular, but mediation can also occur with everyone in the same room. Often, mediation is conducted via video chat so the parents can attend from the comfort of their homes. Mediation is confidential, which means that any offers made during mediation cannot be shared with the Court later on. The confidential nature of mediation allows each party to speak freely without the fear of their statements being used against them in Court if the dispute is not resolved. Once you develop a relationship with a mediator you like, you and your co-parent may be able to schedule subsequent sessions at any time, with or without independent counsel present.
If parents find that the number or magnitude of co-parenting conflicts are unmanageable on their own, they may wish to have a parenting coordinator appointed. A parenting coordinator is a person who can be appointed by the Court, or retained voluntarily by the parents, to resolve conflicts between parents without resorting to Court involvement. A parenting coordinator does not have the authority to change a custody order but can consider each parent’s point of view along with the child’s best interests and make a decision. The parties can also agree that their parenting coordinator may make recommendations to the Court, if appropriate.
If you are encountering difficulties in making joint legal custody decisions with your co-parent and want to explore your options, the Cedar Rapids family law attorneys at Arenson Law Group, PC are happy to assist.