Rules on Spending for Children with Disabilities Create Turmoil
Insight from Nash Attorney Amy Altbach
It’s a call we get all too often at Nash Disability Law. A parent – usually a mom – is confused and upset after meeting with a Social Security Administration (SSA) employee. The parent is calling because they‘ve left the meeting with the impression that they cannot spend – in any way – the back pay awarded in a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) case for their child with disabilities. But this is not true.
We usually begin by reminding the parents what of that they already know, which is that this doesn’t make any sense. Effectively, SSI is a welfare benefit. If the family meets the strict means testing, then they really need that money, so how can it be that they can’t spend it? They know it, but for the most part these families are so stressed and fearful that they panic. They are allowed to spend the back pay, but there are rules.
SSA employees use what the agency calls the Program Operating Manual System (POMS) as their primary source of information on how to process claims for Social Security benefits. Under the POMS, routine expenses are supposed to be paid with the ongoing monthly benefit. Monthly payments can be made to a parent’s account and can be spent on any of the usual expenses that the family might have. The monthly payments often serve to keep the household afloat (rent, utilities, food, transportation, clothing, etc).
The back pay is placed in a separate dedicated account and it is reserved for disability-related expenses. According to the POMS, in general back pay is supposed to be used in ways related to the child’s disability. The intention, if you read the POMS, seems to be that the back pay will be used for singular expenses, things a parent might not have to spend on (or spend on quite so frequently) if their child were in perfect health. The POMS does allow some exceptions for food and rent in emergency situations.
If you can picture the SSI interview, it’s easy to see how confusion occurs. Clients at the interview are thinking of all of their bills and testing things out. “Can I spend it on this?” “How about that?” It is just as easy to imagine how, in the course of trying to explain the complex rules and regulations regarding SSI back pay, a SSA representative might just say to a parent testing out the waters, “You know what, don’t spend it without talking to me.” A parent might rattle off their five most pressing bills, and if they are monthly expenses, they’re likely to find they aren’t considered acceptable uses for the back pay. It’s not hard to see how parents might quickly feel they cannot spend the back pay at all.
There seems to be an increased level of confusion, when the child’s impairment is mental or behavioral. The POMS may be partly to blame. For clarity’s sake, the examples of approved expenses in the POMS relate mostly to physical disabilities, but the reality is that most of the kids who qualify for SSI benefits have learning disabilities, mental impairments and real behavioral issues.
The examples that the POMS provide, and by extension the examples that representatives at the local office may give, tend to be physical in nature and don’t relate well with the situations faced by many of our clients. The intention seems to be that if you can identify something as a disability-related expense; it is an acceptable expense to be paid for with back pay. For example the POMS says “aids to living and learning” should be acceptable. The example they give for an approved expense in this category is special computer software for a blind child. An example that’s more likely with a lot of SSI beneficiaries is educational computer games for a child with a learning disability. Some other examples of potentially acceptable expenses that might be more common with mental or behavioral impairments may include house repairs and replacement of furniture or clothes if a child is destructive or tutoring for a child with attention deficits.
A public version of the POMS is available online at ssa.gov. Unfortunately it is, by necessity, a very lengthy document and not easily understood. SSA themselves says, “Please note that this document (POMS) is intended for SSA employees. It contains technical terms and instructions that will be unfamiliar to you.”
Children’s Social Security Disability cases are different and often times more complex than adult cases. That’s why most law firms shy away from them. At Nash Disability Law, we’re proud of our advocacy on behalf of children who need and deserve vigorous legal representation. If you or someone you care about is considering applying for childhood SSI disability benefits, contact Nash Disability Law for a free consultation.