shutterstock_1134923861-1-300x200“Can my social security check be garnished for child support” is a question some parents may find themselves wondering. The answer to that questions depends on the type of social security benefit the parent receives. Two main types of benefits are Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).


The Tennessee Supreme Court in Tennessee Dept. of Human Servs. ex rel. Young v. Young, 802 S.W.2d 594 (Tenn. 1990) provides a detailed explanation of the comparison of SSI benefits to SSDI benefits.

SSI benefits are a form of public assistance and are not dependent upon the earnings a person previously had. SSI is a safety net program to assist people who are entitled to little or no income from Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). Only after all other sources have been explored is eligibility for SSI benefits determined. Hence, the amount of money to which an SSI recipient is entitled is contingent upon how little a person makes or has made rather than how much. An eligible SSI recipient’s benefits are the amount necessary to raise the recipient’s income to the prescribed minimum level. However, the amount of a Social Security disability recipient’s benefits is keyed to how much that person has paid into the Social Security system over time as a form of renumeration for employment.

The most important distinction between the two types is the person(s) entitled to receive benefits under the program. Implicit in the SSI program is the intention that these payments are for the benefit of the individual recipient, rather than for the benefit of the recipient and the recipient’s dependents. By contrast, SSDI payments benefit the receipt and the recipient’s dependents.


The State of Tennessee calculates child support based on the gross monthly income of each parents, the number of days each parent exercise with the child(ren) annually, insurance and work-related childcare each parent incurs, as well as a number of other factors. While this process may seem as simple as inputting numbers into the child support calculator, disputes frequently arise over what an individual’s actual gross income is.

The Tennessee Child Support Guidelines  describes gross income as income from any source (before deductions for taxes and other deductions such as credits for other qualified children), whether earned or unearned, and includes disability or retirement benefits that are received from the Social Security Administration pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, whether paid to the parent or to the child based upon the parent’s account. However, the guidelines specifically exclude Supplemental Security Income (SSI) received under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The Tennessee Child Support Guidelines  also includes a provision for a minimum amount of child support of at least $100 per month. This minimum requirement does not apply if the obligor parent’s only source of income is Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Unfortunately, this is not always a clear-cut rule. Whether or not an SSI recipient has any other income eligible to be considered for child support purposes may be an issue the judge has to determine at a hearing if the other party contests such issue.


Current Child Support Obligations

As it relates to a current child support obligation, the Tennessee Supreme Court in Tennessee Dept. of Human Servs. ex rel. Young v. Young, 802 S.W.2d 594 (Tenn. 1990), held that SSI benefits were not subject to legal process in Tennessee state courts for payment of court-ordered child support.

Specifically, the court found that allowing the SSI recipient’s monthly benefit to be reduced by the collection of child support obligations would reduce the recipient’s already low-income level even more. By the nature of receiving such benefit, the individual already has little if any opportunity to raise that level because of their age or disability. Subtracting child support payments, in the variable amounts set by state trial judges, from this already low figure would reduce the individual recipient’s income below the “guaranteed minimum income level for aged, blind, and disabled persons,” Schweiker v. Wilson, supra, 450 U.S. at 223–224, 101 S.Ct. at 1077, which is the essence of the legislative intent behind the SSI program. Tennessee Dep’t of Human Servs. ex rel. Young v. Young, 802 S.W.2d 594, 598 (Tenn. 1990).

Judgment for Child Support Arrearages

As it relates to judgments for child support arrearages, the Tennessee Court of Appeals in In re Jordan H., No. E2013-01731-COA-R3JV, 2014 WL 1233227, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 25, 2014) held that that SSI benefits cannot be attached and/or garnished to satisfy a judgment for child support arrears. While the court may still grant one parent a judgment for child support arrears against a parent who receives SSI benefits, the Court cannot attach or garnish the SSI benefits to pay an arrearage judgment.

In conclusion, SSI benefits, codified at 42 U.S.C.A. § 1381,  were created by a 1972 amendment to the federal Social Security Act and were intended “to assist those who cannot work because of age, blindness, or disability,” S.Rep.No.92–1230, p. 4 (1972) S.Rep.No.92–1230, p. 4 (1972), by “setting a Federal guaranteed minimum income level for aged, blind, and disabled persons. Schweiker v. Wilson, 450 U.S. 221, 223, 101 S. Ct. 1074, 1077, 67 L. Ed. 2d 186 (1981). As a result of such federal law, SSDI benefits can be garnished for child support purposes but SSI payments cannot. In re Jordan H., No. E2013-01731-COA-R3JV, 2014 WL 1233227, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 25, 2014).



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