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In re Marriage of Walker

Court of Appeals of Iowa

February 7, 2018

IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF RYAN WALKER AND AMBER WALKER Upon the Petition of RYAN WALKER, Petitioner-Appellee, And Concerning AMBER WALKER, Respondent-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Story County, Timothy J. Finn, Judge.

         A divorced mother of two children appeals the district court's rejection of her proposal for joint physical care.

          Judith Jennings Hoover of Hoover Law Office, P.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

          Ryan Walker, Ames, appellee pro se.

          Considered by Vogel, P.J., and Tabor and Bower, JJ.

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         Both Amber and Ryan Walker testified at their divorce trial that they can communicate well when it comes to their two children, ages two and eight. But in the decree, the district court rejected Amber's request for joint physical care. She renews that request on appeal. After reviewing the record, we conclude joint physical care would be in the children's best interests and modify the decree accordingly.

         Amber was eighteen years old and Ryan was nineteen years old when they married in 2008. The two settled in Ames where Ryan graduated from Iowa State University and Amber worked in retail. They have one son, J.W. born in 2008, and one daughter, M.W. born in 2015. Amber suffered postpartum depression after the birth of each child. After J.W.'s birth, Ryan discouraged Amber from taking medication for the depression, even flushing her prescription down the toilet. So when Amber again felt depressed after M.W. was born, Amber was reluctant to reveal her condition to Ryan. Despite her depression, Amber stayed home for several months after the birth of each child to provide primary care. Ryan worked full-time as a substance abuse counselor. Amber returned to work at Kay Jewelers in late 2015 to help the family make ends meet.[1]

         The couple separated in June 2016. Amber hoped to stay at their Ames apartment until their lease expired, but she testified Ryan forced her to leave one week after she asked for a divorce.[2] Her housing arrangements did not allow for her to take the children with her. Ryan restricted her visitation with the children during the separation. Amber eventually moved into a coworker's two-bedroom apartment, which was close to Ryan's apartment and J.W.'s school. Ryan lived with his sister and, with her help, provided day-to-day care for the children.

         Ryan filed a dissolution petition in July 2016. A temporary custody order placed physical care with Ryan and provided Amber with two overnight visitations every week. After trial in March 2017, the district court issued a decree in May 2017, granting the parents joint legal custody of the children, placing physical care with Ryan, and allowing Amber visitation on alternate weekends.

         The only question before us is whether the district court should have honored Amber's request for joint physical care of M.W. and J.W.[3] Our review of the dissolution decree is de novo, which means we examine the entire factual record and adjudicate anew rights on the legal issues presented. See In re Marriage of Ales, 592 N.W.2d 698, 702 (Iowa Ct. App. 1999). While we independently decide Amber's claim, we give weight to the district court's factual findings, especially with respect to witness credibility. See In re Marriage of Berning, 745 N.W.2d 90, 92 (Iowa Ct. App. 2007).

         Legal custody and physical care are distinct concepts. Legal custody bestows rights and responsibilities to decide matters such as the children's medical care, education, extracurricular activities, and religious instruction. Iowa Code § 598.1(3), (5) (2017); see In re Marriage of Hansen, 733 N.W.2d 683, 690 (Iowa 2007). By contrast, physical care involves the right and responsibility to maintain a home and provide routine care for children. Iowa Code § 598.1(7); Hansen, 733 N.W.2d at 690. An award of joint physical care requires divorced parents to work closely together to coordinate the myriad of everyday details of child rearing. That is why-when deciding if joint physical care is in the children's best interests-we must consider not only the continuity of caregiving, but also the ability of the divorced parents to communicate and show mutual respect; the degree of conflict between them; and the degree to which they are in general agreement about their approach to daily parenting matters.[4] See Hansen, 733 N.W.2d at 696-99.

         After the district court awarded joint legal custody to Ryan and Amber, it was faced with Amber's request for joint physical care. When the court denies a parent's request for joint physical care, that denial "shall be accompanied by specific findings of fact and conclusions of law that the awarding of joint physical care is not in the best interest of the child[ren]." Iowa Code § 598.41(5)(a). The district court here listed several reasons why it believed Ryan, rather than Amber, deserved to be the children's primary caregiver. But the district court did not address why joint physical care would not serve the children's best interests.

         After carefully scrutinizing the trial record and Amber's arguments on appeal, we conclude joint physical care would be in the children's best interests. Both Ryan and Amber are suitable parents, loving and conscientious. When we look at the continuity of caregiving, both parents have been primarily responsible for the children's routine needs at different points in time. The district court placed heavy emphasis on their point of separation, asserting, "Ryan has been the primary caretaker for the children since their mother Amber left." But the district court failed to acknowledge Ryan forced Amber to leave, did not allow her to return to the apartment, and restricted her visitation with the children for ...

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