What if I'm Applying for Disability and Can't Pay Child Support?

Disability recipients are still responsible for child support but can usually get their child support orders modified.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If you can't work because of an injury or illness, and you've applied for disability benefits, you might wonder how this will affect your child support obligation. How can you be expected to pay all your child support while living on a reduced income?

Going on disability won't automatically change anything. You'll still have to pay your child support unless either:

  • you hash out a new support agreement with your child's other parent, or
  • a judge modifies your child support order.

So, what do you do if you've filed for Social Security disability benefits and don't have enough income to pay your child support? You have options.

This article will discuss what you can do when you can't pay child support because of a disability and when child support can be taken from your disability benefits.

Do I Still Have to Pay Child Support When I'm on Disability?

You're still responsible for paying child support even if your only income is your disability benefits—no matter how meager your monthly Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits payments are. Not keeping up with your child support obligation can have severe consequences. If you can't pay it, try to get the child support amount modified (more on this below).

What Can Happen to My Disability Benefits If I Don't Pay My Child Support?

Some disability benefits can be seized to pay overdue child support, but it depends on what kind of Social Security benefits you're getting. SSI and SSDI are treated differently when it comes to past-due child support.

Can Child Support Be Taken From SSI Disability?

SSI benefits are for people with low incomes and few assets, and the benefit amount is quite low. Consequently, your SSI disability benefits can't be seized to pay any child support you owe—that includes your past due benefits (SSI back pay). The reasoning used by the federal government is this: SSI is essentially a public welfare benefit based on need, so your SSI benefits can't be taken for other purposes—just as food stamps and AFDC or TANF funds can't be seized.

Because of this, some states don't count SSI as income when calculating a disabled parent's child support obligations. Since SSI benefits are meant to provide you with only basic living needs, if you receive SSI it's assumed that you won't have money left over to support anyone else.

Can My SSDI Be Garnished to Pay Child Support?

If you're getting SSDI, your benefits might be high enough to allow you to pay at least some child support. And because it's based on your earning record, SSDI is treated more like regular income.

So like regular income, your SSDI benefits can be garnished if you don't pay the child support you agreed to pay (or that the court ordered you to pay). Any SSDI back payments you have coming can also be taken to pay the child support you owe. Learn more about garnishments of SSDI.

Can I Get My Child Support Order Modified When I Go on Disability?

If you can't work, and you begin to collect disability benefits, it's unlikely you'll be able to continue to pay child support at the same level you were paying when you were working. So if you're collecting SSDI benefits and can't afford your child support payments, you might be able to modify the amount of support you're required to pay. And you'll almost certainly be able to get your child support obligation reduced if you're receiving SSI.

But having your child support order or agreement modified doesn't let you off the hook for past due child support. That's why it's important to take action before you get behind on payments. And be ready to show the court (or your ex) proof that your income has changed.

How Do I Prove That I Can't Pay Child Support After Going on Disability?

To prove that your income has decreased, you'll need to show that you have a disability that keeps you from working. And you can do that by providing proof of your disability application, your pending disability appeal. Such proof will demonstrate why you can't meet your current child support obligation.

There are three ways to offer proof that you've applied for disability benefits. You can use either:

  • a copy of your disability application receipt
  • a copy of your Notice of Award (if you've already been approved), or
  • a letter of proof from your disability attorney (or non-attorney representative).

If you don't have a disability lawyer or representative on your disability claim, and you haven't been approved yet, you'll need to get a copy of your application receipt. You can obtain a receipt by contacting the Social Security office where you filed your claim.

If you're represented by an attorney or representative but you haven't been approved yet, you can contact your attorney or representative's office. Ask for a letter addressed to either child support enforcement or the family court verifying that you have a pending disability claim or appeal.

Typically, proof of application for disability benefits or a letter from an attorney or nonattorney representative's office will be enough to head off any legal action against you. But proving you've applied for disability won't actually change your obligation to pay child support or the amount of support you're required to pay. It's just the first step in the process.

To get the go-ahead to make lower child support payments, you can either work something out with your child's other parent or you can go to court to get the support order modified by a judge.

Will a Judge Reduce My Child Support Obligation Because I'm on Disability?

To have a child support order modified through the courts, you'll need to go back to the court system that has jurisdiction over your case. This is usually the family court in the state where your child lives. Each state has its own rules for calculating child support.

You'll need to ask the court for a support modification hearing, where you'll explain why you can't pay the original child support obligation and why you think you should pay less. In deciding whether to grant your request for a support modification, the judge will consider several factors, like

  • both parents' earnings
  • how much time the child spends with each parent, and
  • other dependents each parent has.

But if you and your child's other parent were able to work out the initial child support agreement yourselves, you might be able to negotiate a new agreement without going to court.

Can I Negotiate a New Child Support Agreement With My Child's Other Parent?

Yes. Start by explaining why you can't work anymore. Then explain the difference between the amount of your prior income and the amount of your disability benefits. If you're able, you might offer to care for the child for more hours in exchange for paying less child support.

If your child's other parent asks for proof of your inability to work, share a copy of your disability award letter (or application proof) and a statement from your doctor regarding your disability and your limitations. (You'll need this proof if you go to court too.)

If and when you both agree to lower your child support commitment, write up the new agreement. Both of you should sign it. To protect yourself, it's best to then go to court and ask a judge to approve the modification.

Do I Still Have to Pay Child Support If My Child Receives Dependents Benefits?

If you're collecting SSDI benefits, your child might qualify for Social Security dependents benefits based on your past earnings. For your child to qualify, you must be eligible for SSDI, and your child must be:

  • under 18
  • under 19 and a full-time high school student, or
  • disabled (before the age of 22).

Adopted children and stepchildren can also qualify for dependents benefits. (Contact Social Security at 800-772-1312 to set up dependents benefits for your child.)

Most states treat Social Security dependents benefits as your income when re-calculating child support, and they'll credit the amount of dependents benefits your child receives toward your child support obligation. In these states, if your child receives generous dependents benefits from Social Security, your child support requirement could be wiped out altogether.

In other states, your child's receipt of dependents benefits doesn't necessarily affect your child support obligation. It's just another factor for a judge to look at in determining whether your child support order should be modified when you start collecting disability benefits.

You can contact your state's child support agency, or a family law attorney, to find out how your state's child support rules treat dependents benefits.

(Also, learn how getting divorced can affect your disability benefits.)

Updated April 28, 2023

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