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Can SSA garnish my disability checks to pay child support?

Imagine for a moment that you are a recently divorced parent. Your finances are precarious now that you are separated from your spouse but your disability creates another problem for you: it makes you unable to work and therefore unable to rebound from the impending financial crisis you are soon to face. You realize though that you have an option: applying for Social Security disability benefits.

You are elated when your application is approved; but when you get your first check, you notice that some of your check is being garnished. When you look into it, you find out that these garnishments are for child support payments. This may be frustrating and may immediately lead to the question: can SSA garnish my disability checks to pay child support?

The answer, as you will soon see, can be both yes and no. This is because of how SSA defines its two disability benefit programs -- SSDI and SSI. While SSDI is considered an earned benefit, SSI is considered to be a welfare benefit. It's this difference in definition that can determine whether a divorced parent could see their checks garnished down the road.

Let's start with SSDI. Because this is considered an earned benefit, an ex-spouse can request garnishment to cover unpaid child support payments. This request must be filed through a local Social Security office and can be done only after receiving a withholding order from a judge. It's also important to point out that per federal law, no more than 65 percent may be withheld from this benefit and in some states, this percentage is even lower.

With SSI benefits, things work differently. The federal government prohibits the garnishment of SSI benefit checks, which are already awarded to disabled individuals who also have limited resources and income. This may be particularly good news to those of our readers who have limited income, are receiving SSI benefits but are required to make child support payments as well.

Source: TIME, "How to Collect Child Support from an Ex’s Social Security Benefits," Kerri Anne Renzulli, March 17, 2015

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