LINCOLN — Divorced parents in Nebraska are watching closely to see if a state commission will recommend changing child support guidelines to reflect the costs of child day care and health care.
With some noncustodial parents arguing that child support awards are too high in Nebraska, a commission is considering whether to factor day care and medical expenses into the formula judges use to set payments. Currently, such expenses are not included in monthly child support payments.
The Child Support Advisory Commission plans to submit recommendations by the end of the year to the Nebraska Supreme Court. Federal law requires the 11-member commission to review child support guidelines at least once every four years.
The guidelines include tables and formulas judges use to calculate what almost 100,000 parents pay in monthly child support. Currently, noncustodial parents often pick up the major share of day care and medical care expenses in addition to their monthly child support payments.
The current guidelines fail to accurately reflect the expenses noncustodial parents face in trying to maintain a separate residence that provides the same standard of living for children that existed before divorce, said State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the commission chairman.
The traditional assumption has been that noncustodial parents — the vast majority of whom are fathers — should pay the majority of all expenses because they have higher incomes. Such formulas seem to create a heavy financial burden, especially on middle-income and lower-income parents.
The system needs to recognize that parents have to maintain two households on the same incomes they were earning before divorce, the senator said.
“I think we have to get real about what’s going on in society today, and that is both parents work,” Ashford said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that it costs between $175,000 and $400,000 to raise a child from birth to age 17. Critics of the Nebraska guidelines say those expenses should be more evenly split by divorced parents.
Chris A. Johnson, an attorney in Hastings who has advocated for more equal parenting time in child custody cases, told the commission that his office calculated support payments for three income levels in Nebraska and surrounding states. In two of the income categories, Nebraska ranked highest while coming in second in the third category.
In his letter to the commission, Johnson also referred to a 1999 study by the American Bar Association that said Nebraska ranked highest in the nation for child support awards paid by middle- and upper-income parents and third highest for low-income parents — despite Nebraska having a cost of living that is below the national average.
Angela Dunne, an Omaha attorney who serves on the commission, argued that the guidelines must continue to reflect the differences in incomes between parents. The parent with primary custody — who in most cases in Nebraska continues to be the mother — also incurs expenses.
Studies show that up to 40 percent of single-parent households live in poverty, said Jane Venohr, an economist with the Center for Policy Research in Denver. Income differences between parents must be taken into account, and the parent who makes more should pay a higher percentage of the costs to raise a child, she said.
The commission hired Venohr to review Nebraska’s guidelines, compare them with other states’ and suggest options for commission members to consider. In a report she gave to the commission this month Venohr said Nebraska’s child support awards are no longer the highest in the nation, although they tend to fall “on the high end” when compared with surrounding states.
Nebraska’s child support guidelines are based on a model used by 38 other states, Venohr said. She suggested the state consider making adjustments for expenses not currently included in the guidelines rather than switching to a different model altogether.
The commission — which includes judges, a custodial parent, a noncustodial parent, lawyers, an economist and state officials who manage Nebraska’s child support system — will meet Tuesday with Venohr at the State Capitol. The meeting, which starts at 9 a.m. and is open to the public, will give commission members a chance to ask the economist more questions as they start to focus on what they will recommend.
Marian Heaney has recommended that the commission try to move the system away from punishing fathers, especially when they hit a rough patch financially through the loss of a job or a health care crisis. Heaney is managing attorney at the Omaha office of Legal Aid of Nebraska, which has helped about 320 noncustodial fathers obtain child support payment modifications over the past four years.
She estimated that 95 percent of the men who walk into her office want to support their children, but instead find themselves getting behind on payments they can’t make. And when that starts to happen, they sometimes drift further apart from their children.
Getting a modification order from a judge to temporarily reduce the payments can require a lawyer and takes a minimum of several months to complete, she added.
“We’ve built an entire myth of deadbeat dads around a minuscule percentage of fathers,” Heaney said. “These are people who work. They are not people looking to dodge their obligations.”
Byron Van Patten, a child support collections administrator for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, agreed, saying the “vast majority” of noncustodial parents in the state want to support their kids financially.
An estimated 150,000 children rely on those payments. Of every dollar of child support owed in the state, the department manages to collect about 70 cents. That ranks Nebraska in the top 10 nationally when it comes to collecting support.
Van Patten disagreed with the contention that Nebraska’s child support awards are still among the nation’s highest, based upon comparisons done by HHS.
Money collected by the center either passes through to the children or, in some cases, helps reimburse the state for welfare expenses incurred by custodial parents when the other parent stopped paying, Van Patten said.
“Our goal is to set child support orders in line with a parent’s ability to pay,” he said.
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