LINCOLN — Many noncustodial parents would see a reduction in their monthly financial obligations under proposed updates to Nebraska’s child support guidelines.
The across-the-board recommendations of a special state commission are intended to reflect Nebraska’s lower cost of living as compared with surrounding states. Depending upon a parent’s income, the proposed changes could reduce base monthly child support payments by as much as $200.
The recommendations also could allow judges to further reduce payments for parents willing to evenly split time with their children.
The Nebraska Supreme Court must decide whether to adopt the recommendations once it formally receives the commission’s report. In the past, the judges have sought public comment before altering guidelines that affect up to 100,000 households in the state.
Nebraska child support payments currently rank among the highest in the nation, say advocates for noncustodial parents. The recommended changes put Nebraska “in line” with six neighboring states, according to an economist hired to conduct research for the commission.
“The commission felt strongly that it should reflect the cost of living of Nebraska, which it does,” said Jane Venohr, the economist with the Center for Policy Research in Denver.
Under the recommendations, what a noncustodial parent pays in support would vary based on the incomes of both parents and the number of children involved. Generally, however, the reductions range from $40 to $225 per month.
The recommendations are a step in the right direction, said Chris A. Johnson, a Hastings, Nebraska, attorney who has been an outspoken advocate for noncustodial parents, who most often are fathers.
“They stopped turning a blind eye to the needs of the noncustodial parents,” Johnson said.
The 12-member commission, made up of state senators, judges, attorneys and custodial and noncustodial parents, as well as state agency representatives with expertise in the child support system, is required by law to review the guidelines every four years. The commission voted 11-1 to endorse the final recommendations.
Monty Shultz of Kearney, Nebraska, appointed to represent the interests of noncustodial parents, cast the dissenting vote. He called the commission’s work invalid because more than half of the nine meetings went unattended by its chairman, State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha.
Ashford, who was elected to the U.S. House in November, said he missed meetings while making the transition to his new office. But he said he reviewed minutes and read reports.
“The experts were there,” Ashford said. “I’m satisfied with the work done. We had the team, the logistical support and the legal counsel we needed.”
The awarding of parenting time was another issue that hovered over the commission. During a public hearing at one of the first meetings, several noncustodial fathers said they pay too much child support for too little time with their children.
Under the law, judges must consider what’s in the best interest of the child when determining which parent gets primary physical custody and how much visitation the other parent receives. Once that decision is made, judges are supposed to determine child support.
Those who defend awarding primary custody to one parent say forcing parents who can’t get along to split time exposes children to damaging conflict. Those who argue in favor of shared parenting say children are more emotionally healthy and perform better in school when they have meaningful relationships with both parents.
Noncustodial parents currently get an average of five days of visitation per month — or about 16 percent of the parenting time — according to a 10-year analysis of Nebraska court decisions released last year.
While judges have latitude in setting child support, they can use a worksheet to reduce payments under the current formula when parents agree to a visitation schedule of at least 142 days per year, or about 38 percent of the time.
The commission recommended dropping the threshold to 104 days, which represents 28 percent of the time. That translates to even lower child support payments for the noncustodial parent, said Angela Dunne, an Omaha divorce lawyer who served on the commission.
Dunne said she’s concerned that the recommendation could result in child support cuts that could make budgeting more difficult for custodial mothers, who generally earn less than fathers.
But for those parents who agree to share time with the child more evenly, the recommendation helps the noncustodial parent to better maintain a decent household for his child, said Les Veskrna of Lincoln, an advocate for equal parenting.
“I think these guidelines begin to correct a long-standing problem,” he said.
Other recommendations in the commission’s report relate to health care costs. One would allow parents to deduct the cost of health insurance for themselves from their income before child support payments are calculated.
Another major recommendation would require the costs of child day care and preschool to be incorporated in the child support order, making payment of those expenses easier to enforce.
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