Court of Appeals refuses to apply lump sum social security disability auxiliary benefits to pre disability child support arrearage

In the January 17, 2018, opinion in Scott v. Scott, 422 S.C. 154, 810 S.E.2d 439 (Ct. App. 2018), the Court of Appeals refused to apply lump sum social security disability auxiliary benefits to a pre-disability child support arrearage.

In Scott, Father had a child support arrearage when he became disabled. He petitioned for, and obtained, a temporary reduction in his child support obligation. Eventually he was found disabled and his child received approximately $6,500 in past due benefits and an ongoing monthly check of $543 as a result of Father’s disability. At trial, the family court increased Father’s child support obligation to $543 per month but indicated that the auxiliary benefit his child was receiving would satisfy this obligation. The family court refused to apply the past due benefits to any arrearage that had accumulated prior to his disability, requiring him to pay that arrearage at a rate of $75.00 per month. Father appealed.

He raised three issues on appeal. First he alleged that the family court erred in increasing his child support obligation given his disability. The Court of Appeals rejected that claim, noting:

According to the family court’s order, “the benefits that the [minor child] is receiving from Social Security are in lieu of [Scott’s] child support going forward.” Nothing in the family court’s order increases the amount of Scott’s child support obligation. Instead, the family court’s order indicates Scott was no longer required to pay his monthly child support obligation because the minor child was receiving monthly Social Security benefits greater than Scott’s child support obligation. Although the SSA deemed Scott disabled, he still has an obligation to support his child.

Next Father claimed that the lump sum benefits should have been applied to his pre-disability arrearage. Again the Court of Appeals rejected his claim:

Although South Carolina has clearly established that a parent should get credit for Social Security benefits paid to a minor child, the question of whether a child’s excess Social Security benefits should be credited against a parent’s arrearage is a question of first impression. We note many jurisdictions deem excess benefits a gratuity on behalf of the child. …

We agree with these jurisdictions and hold it is proper for the date of disability to be used for the purposes of establishing when Social Security benefits may be utilized as a substitute for income. Requiring a parent to pay pre-disability arrears merely puts the minor child in the financial position they would have been in if the parent paid the proper amount of support prior to becoming disabled. This rule properly focuses on the importance of meeting the current needs of children, thereby protecting their right to regular and uninterrupted support. … To hold otherwise would create an incentive for a non-custodial parent to withhold support payments in the hope or expectation that a future receipt of disability benefits by the child would later satisfy those obligations. Therefore, the family court properly credited Scott for the lump-sum payment when it dismissed all of his arrearage that accumulated after September 26, 2013—the date he was deemed disabled.

Citations omitted.

Finally Father argued that, when he was preparing for his appeal, he requested a complete file of his case from the clerk’s office but two documents were missing. The Court of Appeals refused to address this issue, finding it was not preserved for review and that Father was not aggrieved by any decision or order of the family court.

To the extent a child’s auxiliary disability benefits are greater than the disabled parent’s prior support obligation, there’s no reason child support should not go up. Further, given that lump sum benefits are intended to cover the period between the disability and the finding of the disability, there’s no justification for applying those benefits to a pre-disability arrearage. Scott seems a sensible decision.

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