Imputing Income for Child Support in Nebraska

A look at the process of imputing income in Nebraska and how it impacts child support.

Two people fall in love. They have a child. They're happy. Then things start to go south. The relationship ends, and both parents are in pain. One parent wants to get even, to make the other parent feel hurt and lonely and frightened. So the angry parent stops paying child support. After all, you shouldn't have to give money to someone who abandons you, right? Wrong. Child support is money that belongs to children and can only be used to pay their expenses.

Both parents are responsible for the financial support of their children, but when two parents end their relationship, one parent ("the paying parent") naturally winds up paying a larger amount of money to the other parent ("the receiving parent") primarily because of differences in income levels. Just because the paying parent writes a check and gives it to the receiving parent doesn't mean that the money belongs to the receiving parent. The money belongs to the kids.

When paying parents don't work hard enough or don't pay child support, the courts sometimes respond by "imputing" income to them. This means that the court will issue a child support order that assumes paying parents are earning a certain amount of money, even if they really aren't.

This article will explain when and how courts impute income for child support purposes in Nebraska. If you still have questions after reading this article, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.

What Do I Need to Know About a Nebraska Child Support Order?

When your relationship ends, you have two choices: you can negotiate child support with the other parent, or you can let a judge make the decision for you. If possible, it's always best to negotiate an agreement yourself because that way you have control over the outcome. A judge will approve your agreement if it's in the best interests of your child.

Nebraska is a guidelines child support state. This means that the court will figure out both parents' total combined net income, which is gross income minus allowable deductions like union dues, taxes, and retirement payments. This information is entered into a child support calculator, which computes each parent's final obligation. Based on the combined income and the amount of time each parent spends with the child, each parent will pay a percentage of the child's basic support, insurance, child care, and medical expenses. For more information about what's included in adjusted gross income and how child support is calculated in Nebraska, please see Child Support in Nebraska (Nolo).

You can go to court and ask for a modification of an existing child support order if applying the guidelines will result in an upward or downward change of 10% or more, but not less than $25, because of a change in financialcircumstances that's already lasted for three months and will probably last for another six months.

What if the Paying Parent Doesn't Work Hard Enough?

When parents try to hurt each other by skipping out on their child support obligations, they commonly do one of two things:

  • The paying parent voluntarily becomes unemployed. For example, paying parents might quit their jobs or perform so badly at work that employers have no choice but to fire them.
  • The paying parent voluntarily becomes "underemployed." Underemployment means that the paying parent isn't working the usual amount of hours or earning pay at the regular rate. This usually happens because the paying parent asks for fewer hours or accepts a lower-paying job with less responsibility.

When parents are voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, judges will impute income to the paying parent. This means that the court will look earning capacity and money potentially available from other sources (like income from a trust or stock dividends) instead of actual income.

But what if a paying parent is involuntarily unemployed or involuntarily underemployed? For example, what if hard-working parents are laid off through no fault of their own? In these cases, the court will carefully scrutinize the evidence to make sure that the unemployment or underemployment is truly involuntary. As long the parent's earning power hasn't diminished because of their own bad choices, the court won't impute income.

If you lose your job or income through no fault of your own, make sure you document everything that happens—especially your job search efforts. That way you can prove to the court that you're trying hard to work and the situation isn't your fault.

What is Imputed Income?

When the court computes the income that a paying parent could and should have been earning and includes it in a child support order, the court is "imputing" income to the paying parent. It doesn't matter that the parent hasn't actually earned the imputed amount. The judge believes that the parent is capable of paying child support and should have had earned money in the imputed amount.

The Nebraska Supreme Court analyzed the issue of imputed income in two major decisions. In State v. Porter, the court dealt with the issue of whether income can be attributed to an inmate in a correctional facility. The inmate argued that imputing income to him was unfair because as long as he was locked up in prison, he lacked the ability to work. The court decided that criminal activity is a voluntary action that results in incarceration, and that inmates therefore should have income imputed to them regardless of their ability to work. This ruling is important to all paying parents, regardless of their criminal record, because it reaffirms that judges have the power to impute income based on earning capacity when parents choose to engage in bad conduct.

In Smith-Helstrom v. Yonker, the court took up the specific issue of voluntary underemployment. In this case, one parent made a decision to reduce his workload and work only five and a half months of each year. However, his earning capacity, had he worked a full year, was far greater. The court found that where a parent willfully chooses to reduce employment, income should still be imputed based on the parent's larger earning capacity. This case is important today because it establishes that parents who voluntarily reduce their hours or wages will have income imputed to them based on what they are capable of earning.


The Nebraska Judicial Branch's Online Legal Self-Help Center

Legal Aid of Nebraska

Smith-Helstrom v. Yonker, 249 Neb. 449 (1996).

State v. Porter, 259 Neb. 366 (2000).

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