As someone who has practiced law for nearly a decade, I have seen and helped probably a hundred different couples through their divorces: either as the attorney, or the mediator, or just for a brief consultation. I even had a couple of friends I supported through their divorces. Although divorces (or custody cases between unmarried couples with a child in common) are commonplace, I’m often surprised at how little knowledge the general public has about the process. Below are a list of some characteristics of divorce and custody cases, as they currently play out in the corridor.
- Buckle up for the long haul: divorces in Johnson and Linn County can (and do) drag out for eighteen months to two years before being finalized.
For many reasons, the court system in our area is overloaded with cases, and the resulting wait time to get a hearing or trial is lengthy. The time between filing a new divorce action and having a trial is often over two years in the corridor, and that doesn’t include the pre-filing time when a couple may be trying to reconcile or save money for a divorce. This is much longer than even other nearby counties, like Muscatine or Washington. There is a silver lining to this, though; a good lawyer will help you use this delay to your advantage and avoid trial whenever possible.
IMPORTANT NOTE: the delay is getting in front of a judge, for a hearing on temporary issues (like, who will have custody of the children until the divorce is final) and trial. Typically, the process of hiring a lawyer, going through mediation, and reaching a mutually agreeable resolution is much faster.
- There are wonderful resources here.
In contrast to long wait times for court appearances, the nice part of going through a divorce or custody process in the corridor is that we have great resources here.
Kids First: Kids First is a nonprofit which exists to provide legal representation for children, and parenting-focused mediation for parents. They provide other classes and educational resources, as well. I would talk to an attorney before calling Kids First about representing children (your lawyer might have thoughts about when and if that is appropriate in your case).
The best kept secret about Kids First is that they generously offer free parenting-focused mediation (called “Joint Parenting Sessions”). In my humble opinion, this is underutilized. So many couples struggle to make parenting decisions before, during, and even years after their divorce or custody case, and they needlessly struggle alone. Mediation can help parents resolve disputes beyond simply custody and visitation, but also—how to navigate a child’s medical or mental health crisis, parenting decisions for older kids and teens, like when to get a phone or car, etc.
Domestic Violence Services: In spite of the many significant funding cuts to domestic violence programming in Iowa over the past decade, DVIP and Waypoint continue to offer wonderful services for all kinds of survivors of abuse.
- This is a safe and supportive place for LGBTQ+ families to navigate the custody and divorce process.
While I hope this is true for all of Iowa now, I’m happy to report from experience that Iowa City-area attorneys, mediators, and judges are used to working with LGBTQ+ families. There is a lot of news and controversy right now surrounding the rights of trans youth in Iowa, but I have not seen that type of prejudice bleed over into mistreatment or discomfort by professionals helping LGBTQ+ parents or kids.
- Many corridor attorneys take cases on a “limited scope” basis, so you can get help and advice while still doing much of the legwork of your case solo.
To be clear, I think it is always ideal to have representation through a divorce or custody process: the decisions made are lasting, and the power dynamics and money pressure can take over and lead to bad outcomes without an attorney advocating for each parent. That said, affording full representation is not possible for everyone.
Many local attorneys will do what is called “limited scope” work, to help clients navigate one piece of the divorce process (such as, reviewing a final stipulation before signing, or helping a party get her case on file), while leaving the rest to the client to navigate using self-help forms on the Iowa Judicial Branch website. If you would like to hire an attorney on a limited basis, call and ask if they offer “limited scope representation.” Not only do many attorneys (even some of the best in the area) do this, but many of us are excited to do so—this is a way for us to have maximum benefit to help a family get a fair result, without a ton of administrative legwork. I’m only saying that so you won’t be shy to ask about it. I have found limited scope work to be rewarding.
- There is no one way to find the right attorney for you.
There is not, unfortunately, an objective database of lawyers in the corridor that will help you pick the exact right one for you. If I was picking an attorney for myself, and was not a lawyer, I would ask friends who had been recently divorced or separated for their recommendations: not just names, but also WHY that attorney was a good choice, and HOW they helped the friend. Think of it like when you chose a pediatrician, therapist, or realtor, because it is an equally personal choice. Know also that lawyers expect and are not offended by “lawyer shopping” before you make a final decision. If you have never been through a court proceeding before, it makes sense that you would meet a few different practitioners before landing on the one you want advocating for you through your case.
Wherever you are in your divorce or custody process, I hope this information provided at least a small light into what family law in the corridor looks like.