Issue: How does a court factor into child support calculations any benefits a parent receives from Social Security.
Brief Answer: Fla. Stat. ch. 61.30(2)(a)(8) (2013) provides that "social security benefits" are included in gross income for the purpose of child support calculations. When social security disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income is received because of the disability of a parent, those benefits and the dependent benefits that accompany it, are income attributable to the parent.
Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is a program that is strictly need-based, according to income and assets. SSI is called a "means-tested program," meaning it has nothing to do with work history, but strictly with financial need. Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, is funded through payroll taxes. SSDI recipients are considered "insured" because they have worked for a certain number of years and have made contributions to the Social Security trust fund. SSDI candidates must be younger than 65 and have earned a certain number of "work credits." Under SSDI, a disabled person's spouse and children are eligible to receive partial dependent benefits.
The distinction between supplemental security income (SSI) and Social Security disability benefits (SSDI) is important because Fla. Stat. §61.30(11)(a) refers only to supplemental security income. SSI is likely to be the only type of benefit a child could receive on his or her own behalf, because of the child's disability. A child is ineligible for SSDI benefits unless he or she has met the contribution requirements through employment. In addition, Fla. Stat. §61.30(11)(a) does not refer to dependent benefits at all, whether due to SSI, SSDI, or any other Social Security benefit. Sealander v. Sealander, 789 So. 2d 401, 403 (Fla 4th DCA 2001).
In Sealander, the Former Husband was required to pay $300 per month in child support. 789 So. 2d 401, 402. After he voluntarily retired early, he filed a petition for modification of child support, arguing as a result of his retirement, the Former Wife began receiving $500 per month from Social Security as child support. Id. He further argued that because the payments were more than what he was required to pay, he was entitled to receive a credit against his support obligation. Id. The appellate court held that when a parent is receiving social security disability income due to a disability and, as a result, his or her children receive dependent benefits, the total benefits received by or on behalf of that parent are attributed to the disabled parent as income in the child support guideline calculation. Id. at 403. The dependent benefits are then credited toward the disabled parent's obligation, that is, they are a payment of the obligation on behalf of the disabled parent. Id. If the benefits are less than the support obligation, the disabled parent must pay the difference. Id. If they are more, the benefits pay the obligation in full, but any excess inures to the benefit of the children. Id. The Court also opined that although the present case involves social security benefits paid to a child as a result of a parent's retirement rather than a parent's disability, there was no reason to treat the two situations differently. Id. Lastly, a child who is disabled may receive supplemental security income in his or her own right. Id. The statute reflects that this income of the child, intended to provide additional support due to the child's special needs, should not serve as a basis to reduce the parents' obligation. Id.
Another case that dealt with calculating child support when a parent is receiving social security benefits is Wallace v. Dep't of Revenue ex rel. Cutter, 774 So. 2d 804 (Fla 2nd DCA 2000). In Wallace, the father was ordered to pay child support and later became eligible to receive social security benefits and his children also became eligible to receive benefits as dependents. Id. at 805. The Father filed a petition for modification, seeking a recalculation of his ongoing child support obligation and a credit against his arrearages. Id. The appellate court reversed the trial court's refusal to credit appellant's child support arrearage with any amount because of the social security benefits received by the children. Id. at 807. The court reasoned that these dependent benefits were paid as a result of the father’s disability and were made to his children on his behalf, thus, they should have been applied to meet the obligation incurred simultaneously with their receipt. Id.
It is important that the trial court when calculating child support not commingle the child’s benefits and the parent’s benefits. In the case of Ford v. Ford, 816 So. 2d 1193 (Fla 4th DCA 2002), the appellate court held that the support obligation of the father improperly combined the social security benefits of his minor child. Id. at 1196. The father was not entitled to credit for the child's supplemental support income. Id. at 1197. A child who is disabled may receive supplemental security income in his or her own right. Id. Fla. Stat. §60.30(11)(a) reflects that this income of the child, intended to provide additional support due to the child's special needs, should not serve as a basis to reduce a parents' child support. Id.
Under Wallace and Sealander, when a parent is receiving social security disability income due to a disability or social security retirement benefits, and, as a result, his or her children receive dependent benefits, the total benefits received by or on behalf of that parent are attributed to the receiving parent as income in the child support guideline calculation. If the benefits are less than the support obligation, the disabled parent must pay the difference. If they are more, the benefits pay the obligation in full, but any excess inures to the benefit of the children.