How Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income Can Affect Child Support

by Justin D. Riem

According to the Iowa Child Support Guidelines, child support will be set using the parents’ net monthly incomes, among other factors. Often, the parties will dispute how to calculate the other’s income; typically arguing their personal income is reported too high, inconsistent, or speculative and the other’s income is reported too low or omits other sources of income. To some extent, there’s a limit to what the parties can argue and what sources of income are includable. However, the issue of computing each party’s income for child support purposes is a unique and ever-changing area of family law. A few sources of income that are important to distinguish are social security disability benefits and supplemental security income. As will be shown below, for now, the law on this in Iowa is fairly settled and clear cut.

Social Security Disability Benefits: Included In Income

Social security pays benefits to people who can’t work due to a medical condition that’s expected to last at least one year or result in death. Certain family members of disabled workers can also receive money from social security.   Once an application for benefits is granted, the applicant or their qualifying family members will receive a certain amount of money each month for a set amount of time, determined by a number of factors unique to each specific case.

In Iowa, social security disability payments, whether paid directly to the disabled parent, the non-disabled parent, or the minor child, are included in the disabled parent’s net monthly income for child support purposes. The reason is that the disability payments are intended to replace lost income due to the parent/employee’s disability; meaning, they are amounts the parent would earn if they weren’t disabled. However, for purposes of child support, courts will treat the disability benefits as a substitute for child support only during the period in which the benefits are received. Once these disability payments are included in income, an obligor parent (parent ordered to pay support) is entitled to a “credit” only up to the extent of his or her obligation for monthly payments of child support made during the period in which the child receives benefits on the that parent’s behalf. It does not matter that the disability benefits may result in the child receiving more money than they would under child support that’s set without the benefits included in income. Iowa courts see this excess as a “gratuity” to the child under the support order. Likewise, a credit is not available if the basis of the social security account is not that of the child support obligor.

Supplemental Security Income: Excluded From Income

Supplemental security income (“SSI”) is a monthly amount of money paid by funds from the US Treasury and provides supplemental income to people who have low income and few resources, such as those who are 65 years of age or older, blind, or disabled. SSI can also be paid to the non-disabled parents or custodians of children who are blind or disabled. When a child is disabled, even if support has been ordered, the custodial parent (parent with primary care) may need additional assistance or money to help pay for the extraordinary cost of the disabled child’s care. A dispute may arise between parties regarding whether or not SSI should be included in the net monthly income for the custodial parent when calculating the non-custodial parent’s child support obligation.

In Iowa, if it is received for disabled children living with the custodial parent, SSI is not considered in calculating that parent’s net monthly income for child support purposes. SSI is considered “public assistance” as defined by the child support guidelines, which specifically excludes public assistance from being included in a parent’s income for purposes of calculating child support. Moreover, the amount of SSI received, if any, will be affected by the child support the non-custodial parent is ordered to pay. Meaning, SSI benefits may be reduced or eliminated depending on the amount of child support ordered.

SSI is based on need and on the assumption that it will only come into play if the minor child does not have sufficient support from his or her parents. Keep in mind that Iowa law requires both parents to provide support to their children until they reach the age of majority. Because of this, the Iowa Supreme Court has specifically ruled that Judges cannot structure child support in such a way that may increase parents’ chances of becoming eligible for SSI. This means that the law does not allow judges to set child support at an amount they believe will still allow the child or parent to qualify for SSI. Essentially, judges can’t “play with the numbers.” Eligibility for SSI will be determined or reevaluated after a court has fixed reasonable child support based on the noncustodial parent’s ability to pay.

Conclusion

Although social security disability benefits will almost always be included in calculating a parent’s income for child support purposes, there are exceptions which may apply depending on the circumstances of a case. Additionally, if you are the custodial parent of a disabled minor child and the child support that’s ordered is not enough to cover the child’s needs, you may wish to apply for SSI in hopes that any SSI would make up the difference. Although it is no guarantee that SSI will be granted after child support is set, Iowa law is clear that judges can neither “wait” and set child support after SSI is received nor purposefully set it lower in the hopes that SSI will be granted. Therefore, it is recommended that a trained child support attorney be retained to assist in navigating the issue of child support as it involves disability or supplemental income.