AUBURN, Neb. — Bryan Sheffield has found out that when it comes to child support disputes, a canceled check isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
The 32-year-old disabled military veteran who served in the Iraq War finds himself squeezed by a bureaucratic vise that may eventually land him in jail.
That's because Sheffield refuses to pay the $11,000 in child support the State of Nebraska says he owes.
He already paid it, he insists.
As proof, he offers bank printouts of 20 canceled checks. Each $536 check says “child support” in the memo line. Each carries the signature of his ex-wife on the back.
Yet officials with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said the canceled checks aren't enough. They told Sheffield that only a judge or his former wife can credit him for the payments, because they were made directly to her instead of through the state's child support payment center.
The attorney for Sheffield's ex-wife sides with the state, saying judges routinely sort through child support matters.
Cases like Sheffield's, where the noncustodial parent pays support directly to the custodial parent, are rare but not unheard of, Nebraska officials say. But Sheffield's quandary illustrates why they urge that all support payments be made through the state's center, which processes nearly 2 million payments annually.
Sheffield, who lives in a rented farmhouse near Auburn, Neb., says he can't get a receipt from his ex-wife, nor can he afford an attorney to go back to court.
He has sought help from his state senator and the governor, to no avail.
In the meantime, state officials have taken steps to force payment of the $11,000. They filed paperwork to intercept tax refunds he might be owed and will block any attempt to get a passport. The state has the authority to go after his credit rating, his driver's license and, if necessary, his freedom.
So be it, he says.
“At least I'd get a public defender and get my day in court.”
Auburn attorney Louie Ligouri, who represents Sheffield's ex-wife, said allegations such as Sheffield's are routinely decided by judges.
“My client hasn't done anything improper. I haven't done anything improper,” said Ligouri, who otherwise declined to comment on the matter.
Messages left with Sheffield's former wife, Clarinda Cook, were not returned.
Their nine-year marriage ended in 2009 while the couple was living in Rome, Ga. At the time, he was an Air Force recruiter.
He joined in 2002 and his service as a radio equipment technician included a tour in Iraq between 2004 and 2005. He received an honorable discharge from the Air Force in 2011 and left with the rank of technical sergeant.
He considers Alabama home, but followed his son and daughter to Auburn, where his ex-wife had moved. The children are now 9 and 6.
Sheffield struggled to find a job in the small community, so he has used GI Bill benefits for online college courses with the goal of obtaining a degree in human resources management.
In the meantime, he said he relies on $2,000 in monthly disability pay for a back ailment tied to his military service. He remarried in late 2011, and he and his wife, Brandi Sheffield, are expecting their first child.
Because his income dropped after the move to Nebraska, he hired a lawyer and filed a motion in May 2012 in Nemaha County District Court to have the child support payments reduced. This spring, a judge cut the payment from $1,072 per month to $947.
That's when Sheffield contacted Nebraska's child support payment center — and when his trouble started.
A staff member at the center said Sheffield was 10 months behind on child support, dating to the start of his court case in Nemaha County. According to Nebraska's records, he should have started paying $1,072 each month to the center after he filed the motion for a child support reduction.
Sheffield said he never received a letter or call from the state in 2012 instructing him to make payments to the child support center. But he wasn't worried about it because he had the canceled checks as a record of his payments.
Sheffield said he has always paid his ex-wife directly. Shortly after the 2009 divorce in Georgia, he said, he tried to set up an automatic withdrawal from his paycheck for child support. A court employee in Floyd County, Ga., told him it wasn't necessary and he could pay his ex-wife directly, he said.
And that's what he did, even though Georgia, like all states, has its own child support payment center. The Georgia Division of Child Support Services strongly urges parents to make child support payments through its agency, a spokeswoman said.
Barbara Penson, a clerk with Floyd County Superior Court, said Sheffield's child support should have been directed to the center by an automatic paycheck deduction. She said she would not have advised him to make payments to his ex-wife.
Sheffield said he regrets that he has no third-party record of payment — “Because I wouldn't be here now,” he said.
At every turn, Nebraska officials have told him the canceled checks don't qualify as evidence of payment. He sought help from the State Ombudsman's Office, State Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse and Gov. Dave Heineman.
“I was dumbfounded that it was not proof,” he said.
Sheffield had his lawyer send a letter to his ex-wife's attorney asking for a receipt. There was never a response.
Byron Van Patten, child support administrator for Nebraska, said that in a small minority of cases, child support payments are made directly between the parties. Thinking back over his decades-long career with the state, Van Patten said he could think of a few other cases like Sheffield's, where a similar dispute over payment questions arose.
When asked why Sheffield's canceled checks would not constitute proof of payment, Van Patten said there is a legal mechanism in place for the courts to decide whether payment credit should be awarded.
“The state doesn't want to be in the position of second-guessing what a judge might do,” he said.
When the child support modification was litigated earlier in Nemaha County, a judge had plenty to sort out. Based on claims and counterclaims, the couple disagreed over nearly every aspect of the case.
She alleged that Sheffield owed her about $6,000 for his half of day care expenses. Sheffield refused to pay, arguing that since he was unemployed, he was able to care for the children.
District Judge Daniel Bryan ruled Sheffield didn't have to pay the $6,000. But the judge rejected Sheffield's arguments on child support and only modestly cut the payment because the ex-wife was earning more through her employment.
Other court papers reveal some of the personal messiness that's not uncommon in disputed divorces. The ex-wife accused Sheffield of being “very controlling and demanding” during the marriage. Until her recent move to another town near Auburn, she and Sheffield exchanged the children at the police department.
During one such exchange in April, an argument prompted Sheffield to throw a partially full ice cream container at his ex-wife's vehicle. He was ticketed for littering and paid a $50 fine.
Now, one way or another, it appears the courts will eventually have to determine whether Sheffield must pay much more than a littering fine.