Can an Iowa Court Hear Your Family Law Case?

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid LSC Funded


Iowa courts can’t automatically hear every divorce or custody case that is filed. Iowa law has requirements for how long a person or child has lived in Iowa before a court can make decisions about those people in a divorce or custody case.


How long a person must live in Iowa to start a divorce depends on whether or not his or her spouse lives in Iowa.

If Your Spouse Does Not Live in Iowa

If your spouse does not live in Iowa, you must live in Iowa for one year before starting a divorce.

If Your Spouse Lives in Iowa

If your spouse lives in Iowa and can be personally served with the divorce paperwork, you do not need to live in Iowa for one year before starting the divorce. Your spouse must be a resident in Iowa, meaning they live in the state and is not just visiting for a short time or plans to move soon. The spouse must be personally served with the paperwork. To be personally served, the court paperwork has to be given to your spouse by another person, usually by a sheriff or process server.

Not all states have the same requirements as Iowa. If you have lived in Iowa for less than one year and your spouse does not live in Iowa, you may want to check the requirements of the state you moved from or where your spouse lives to see if one of those states can divorce you.


Iowa courts can’t always decide who has custody of a child until the child has lived in Iowa for a certain amount of time. An Iowa court must have jurisdiction, or the right to make decisions about a child, in order to decide who should have custody of the child in a custody case, divorce case, or protective order case.

Child custody jurisdiction can be complicated. There are different rules depending on whether a parent is asking the court to decide custody for the first time or change a custody order already in place.

Deciding Custody for the First Time

Home State: The general rule is that a child must live in Iowa with a parent or other person acting like a parent for six months before a court can decide who has custody of the child. This six-month requirement makes Iowa the child’s “home state.” A court in the child’s “home state” gets to make first-time custody decisions. If the child is younger than six months old, a parent or other person can ask the court to make a first-time custody decision if the child has lived in Iowa since birth.

Later Decisions About Custody

A state that already made a custody decision about a child usually will continue to have the right to make decisions about custody of that child. But if a different state’s court needs to make another decision about a child’s custody, the new state must be the “home state” of the child or an exception must apply.


In both first and later decisions about custody of a child, there are some exceptions to the “home state” rule. Even if Iowa is not the “home state,” an Iowa court might be able to make decisions in very specific situations.

  • Inconvenient Forum: This means another state might be the better place to hear a custody case. There are many reasons why another state might be better to make a later custody decision, including domestic abuse between the parents, the child has lived in a different state for a very long time (which is decided on a case by cases basis), or most of the evidence that would be used in a custody case is in another state.
  • Emergency: Even if Iowa is not the home state of a child, an Iowa court can make decisions about child custody if it is an emergency situation. The child has to be in Iowa for a court to do this. There must be proof it is an emergency, such as the child has been abandoned or the child is being abused.

If Iowa is not the “home state” of a child and no exception can be used, the parent may want to contact an attorney in the state that may be the child’s “home state” to see if a court in that state can make custody decisions about the child. 

If you are having problems, you may wish to call Iowa Legal Aid.

Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 
To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275. 
Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or 
apply online at
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice. 
Last Review and Update: Oct 22, 2020

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