Social Security Benefits in Lieu of Child Support Payments

by Beverly Bird

Despite all the emotion involved, divorce is ultimately a numbers game. Marital property must be valued and divided, and spousal support and child support are calculated based on your incomes. Social Security benefits are a tricky part of the support equation. Some benefits may reduce or even eliminate your child support obligation.

Social Security Disability Income

The Social Security you've been paying into over the years through withholdings from your paycheck contributes to Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). This is support that is available to you should you become disabled. You gave this money to the government while you worked, and now the government is returning it to you because you've suffered a qualifying disability. If you have a minor child, she may be eligible for a child's insurance benefit if you become disabled. This is in addition to the benefits you receive. In a respect, all this is your money. You earned it over the course of your career, although your employer contributed as well. Therefore, states treat this differently than Supplemental Security Income, which is also overseen by the Social Security Administration. The child support obligation you'll take on as part of your divorce is mostly dependent on your state's laws, not federal law.

SSDI Support Calculations

When the court totals your available sources of income for purposes of calculating child support, it will include SSDI payments you receive. The court calculates your obligation first, based on your income. If your child support obligation comes out to $400 a month, for example, and your child receives $200 a month in SSDI benefits based on your work record, you must pay $200 a month in support. If your child receives $400 a month in benefits, you would owe nothing in support. The benefits would effectively be in lieu of the cash payment you would otherwise have made.

Arrears

If your child's SSDI benefit is more than your child support payment, this erases your support obligation and your spouse normally keeps the balance. For example, if your support payment is $400 a month and your child receives $500 in SSDI, the first $400 serves in lieu of your support payment and your child's custodial parent gets to keep the extra $100. It's your child's money and should be used toward her care and well-being. If you fall behind with your support payments before you become disabled and your child begins collecting SSDI, the overage typically will not go toward whittling away your arrears.

Child's Supplemental Security Income

If you're receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), it typically will not affect your child support calculations because most state courts do not consider this to be income. If your child receives SSI, it's because she's disabled. These payments are not funded by you as a wage earner, but by the government from its tax revenues. They're need-based, a form of welfare. Therefore, the fact that your child receives this money doesn't reduce your financial responsibility to support her as well. In fact, the opposite occurs: your support payments will cause her SSI payments to be reduced. The Social Security Administration subtracts two-thirds of your support obligation from her benefit amount and she only receives the balance. For example, if she were to receive $500 a month in SSI and the court calculates your support obligation to be $450 a month, your child would receive $200 in benefits: $500 less $300, or two-thirds of your support obligation. This is in addition to the $450 you'll be paying in support, not in lieu of it.