Until recently, courts within Iowa’s various judicial districts had different philosophies and practices regarding whether or when a spouse could obtain a decree terminating the parties’ marriage before the marital property had been divided. Some Iowa district courts permitted bifurcated dissolution proceedings, allowing a party to terminate a marriage before the property division occurred upon good cause shown. Other district courts never or rarely allowed such bifurcation.

In In re Marriage of Thatcher, 864 N.W.2d 533 (Iowa 2015), the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Iowa statutory law does not allow dissolution proceedings to be bifurcated to terminate the parties’ marriage before there has been an equitable division of the parties’ marital property and debt. Specifically, the majority of the Thatcher Court found that the Iowa legislature intended to require Iowa courts to simultaneously enter the decree terminating the parties’ marriage and the final property division order.

Susan Thatcher, a cancer patient facing imminent death, filed a motion to bifurcate her dissolution proceeding because she wanted to be divorced before she died. The day before her death, the district court entered an order granting Susan’s motion to bifurcate and dissolving her marriage with the division of property “to be determined at a later date.” Her husband appealed.

After the case wound its way through the appellate process, the Iowa Supreme Court eventually decided the question of first impression as to “whether a district court has discretion to end a marriage through a decree of dissolution without dividing the marital property until a later judgment.”

The Thatcher Court recognized that a two-step, bifurcated divorce process was expressly allowed by statute in other states. It further recognized that the Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure generally afford district courts the discretion to bifurcate civil proceedings for convenience or to avoid prejudice. See I.R.Civ.P. 1.914. For example, Iowa courts often bifurcate dissolution proceedings to try preliminary or secondary issues such as the validity of premarital agreements or the existence of marital relationships. See, e.g., In Re Marriage of Winegard, 257 N.W.2d 609 (Iowa 1977)(bifurcation to determine existence of common law marriage); In re Marriage of Gebhardt, 426 N.W.2d 651 (Iowa Ct. App. 1988)(bifurcation to determine existence of common law marriage); In re Marriage of Shanks, 732 N.W.2d 887 (Iowa Ct. App 2007), vacated on other grounds, 758 N.W.2d 506 (Iowa 2008)(bifurcation to determine validity of premarital agreement); In re Marriage of Rossell, 2001 WL 427810 (Iowa Ct. App. 2001 )(bifurcation to determine validity of premarital agreement).

The Thatcher majority – Justices Waterman, Wiggens, Appel and Mansfield – concluded that the procedural rule allowing bifurcation had been superseded by Iowa Code section 598.21(1), which provides that “[u]pon every judgment of . . . dissolution, . . . the court shall divide the property of the parties . . . .” The Thatcher majority held that this language requires a court to enter the dissolution decree and the property division order at the same time. The majority therefore concluded that the district court had erred as a matter of law in allowing the bifurcation.

The Thatcher majority did note:
Susan did not raise the court’s inherent authority in her motion to bifurcate, nor did the district court purport to rely on inherent authority in its bifurcation ruling. Moreover, Susan’s estate does not rely on inherent authority on appeal as an alternative basis to affirm the bifurcation ruling. Accordingly, we do not reach that issue.

Thatcher, 864 N.W.2d at 543 (citations omitted).

The Thatcher concurrence –Chief Justice Cady and Justices Zager and Hecht – disagreed that the language of Iowa Code section 598.21(1) made the division of marital property a condition precedent to dissolving the marriage, and concluded that district courts retain the inherent authority to bifurcate. The concurrence noted that under the majority’s rationale, a district court would be unable to bifurcate proceedings even in cases where both parties wanted it and the circumstances demonstrated it would be beneficial or necessary to do justice between the parties. However, the Thatcher concurrence found that the district court had abused its discretion in granting the motion to bifurcate because the record did not support a finding that bifurcation in this particular case would further the interests of justice between the parties.

Based on the concurrence and the majority’s decision not to address the issue of whether a district court maintains the inherent authority to bifurcate the issues dissolution and property division, there is a possibility that a good faith argument exists to support a request for bifurcation in appropriate circumstances. However, given the majority’s interpretation of Iowa Code section 598.21(1), it would appear that the dissolution decree and property order must be entered simultaneously in Iowa dissolution proceedings.

Disclosure: Shuttleworth & Ingersoll represented Mr. Thatcher in this matter and the author submitted the appeal brief and argued the case.