Modifying Child Support When You Go on Disability

Disability recipients can usually get their child support orders modified.

If you become unable to work and 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. You should be able to modify the amount of child support or spousal support (alimony) you are obligated to pay, especially if you are receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

To get the go ahead to make lower child support payments, you can either work something out informally with the other parent or you can go to court to get the support order modified.

Negotiating Informally With the Other Parent

Explain to the child's other parent why you can no longer work, and what the difference is between your prior income and your disability benefits. If you are able, you may want to offer to care for the child for more hours in exchange for paying less child support. If the other parent asks for proof as to your inability to work, have at hand your disability award letter and a statement from your doctor regarding your disability and your limitations.

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

Asking a Judge for a Child Support Modification

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 make an argument as to why you can't pay the original child support obligation and why think you should pay less. In deciding whether to grant your request for a support modification, the judge may consider both parents' earnings, how much time the child spends with each parents, and other dependents each parent has, among other factors.

SSI vs. SSDI

Whether you receive SSI or SSDI disability benefits will also factor into whether you'll be able to modify your child support obligation; SSI and SSDI are treated differently for child support purposes.

Since SSI benefits are quite low, some states don't count them as income when calculating a disabled parent's child support obligations -- SSI benefits are meant to provide you with only basic living needs and it is assumed that thee won't be money left over to support anyone else. For this reason, SSI benefits can't be garnished to pay child support.

If you are receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, on the other hand, your benefits may be high enough to allow you to pay some support. Accordingly, SSDI benefits can be garnished if you don't pay the child support previously agreed upon or ordered by the court. And if you owe any past-due child support, any SSDI back payments that you receive in a lump sum can be taken to pay it.

Dependents Benefits

If you're collecting SSDI benefits, your child may qualify for dependents benefits based on your past earnings. (Children who are under 18, who are age 19 and full-time students, or who are disabled can qualify. 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 will credit the amount of dependents benefits your child receives toward your child support obligation. This means that 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 is but 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.

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