Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

If I Receive SSD Benefits And Pay Child Support, Do I Still Need To Prove My Disability?

Yes.  In New Jersey your lawyer must provide proof of your disability, even if you have been awarded social security disability benefits.  As child support attorneys, the lawyers at our law firm know what to introduce into evidence at the Superior Court of New Jersey in order to calculate (or recalculate) your child support obligation.

In the 2001 case of Golian v. Golian, the New Jersey Appellate Division held that a finding of disability by the Social Security Administration establishes a prima facie showing that a person is disabled, and thus not able to find gainful employment. Then the evidentiary burden moves to the opposing party to rebut that presumption. However, in the 2012 case of Gilligan v. Gilligan, the Honorable Judge Jones of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Ocean County, found that Golian v. Golian, does not hold that an award letter of Social Security Disability, by itself, is enough for a Family Part court to conclude that a party incapable of earning income or working in capacity to pay child support or arrears. According to Gilligan, a party claiming that he or she cannot work because of a disability, must submit more proof to the court than just a Social Security Disability award letter to succeed.

In Golian, Donna Golian was determined to be disabled by the Social Security Administration by June 1, 1995. She received $ 585 in monthly disability benefits at the time of trial. As evidence, Donna provided a “Report of Confidential Social Security Benefit Information” that was issued on March 24 1999 by the Social Security administration. This report displayed the amount of the benefits she was receiving, and specified that she became disabled on June 1, 1995 because of a neurological problem. George did not dispute her social security disability status, as he was the one who helped her apply for disability benefits in the first place, and drove her to the required meetings, conferences, and hearings. When the couple was living together, they used the money from the monthly benefits for joint marital obligations. Donna appealed from a final judgment of divorce that imputed income on to her, and sought a redetermination and recalculation of alimony, equitable distribution, and attorney’s fees.

Donna gave testimony about her several physical, emotional and psychological disabilities, which included leg pain, back pain, and auditory hallucinations. The medical documentation provided during the course of the litigation showed that she suffered from cervical herniated pulposus with radiculopathy, bilateral temporomandibular join dysfunction, fibromyalgia, multifocal polyneuropathy in the lower extremities, and major depression with auditory hallucinations and paranoia. Donna testified that she could not work because her conditions prevented her from doing simple tasks, and the medication she took would make her drowsy.

The Family Part judge found that the Social Security Administration’s determination was neither binding nor a basis to presume Donna was unable to work. The judge said that there was not enough evidence on the record to allow a finding that Donna was disabled. The New Jersey Appellate Division, however, found that Donna, the person with the disability, had been adjudicated by the Social Security Administration to be disabled. The appellate panel explained that New Jersey Courts must afford deference to administrative review as long as they are supported by credible and substantial evidence in the factual record, and are not capricious or arbitrary. The New Jersey Supreme Court has recognized that administrative findings from one hearing can provide a basis for establishing prima facie proof of a claim’s validity in an action in court. Then, the burden shifts to the person disputing the administration’s finding to rebut its legitimacy. As a result, the New Jersey Appellate Division held that a finding of disability by the Social Security Administration establishes a prima facie showing that the person is indeed disabled, and thus not able to find gainful employment.

In Golian, the party alleging disability was the party receiving support. Conversely, in Gilligan the party alleging disability was a parent responsible for providing the support. Father, Michael Gilligan, argued that he could not pay his current child support obligation or his past due child support arrears because he was the recipient of Social Security Disability benefits, which according to him, established the fact that he was unable to work. Judge Jones held that, by itself, a Social Security Disability award letter is not sufficient to meet the burden to prove that the moving party is not capable of working, without more medical evidence that supports the same contention. This is because someone may receive social security disability benefits even if he or she earns up to $ 1010 a month, which is the “substantial gainful activity” threshold to be eligible for receiving social security disability benefits.

Julie and Michael Gilligan got divorced in 2002. When the divorce was entered Michael had an obligation to pay $ 190 a week in child support. This obligation would increase to $ 237 a week due to cost of living adjustments. Michael would go on to miss many support payments, and accumulate substantial child support arrears over the next several years. He filed a motion requesting a court order to terminate his child support obligation, and reduce his responsibility to pay back his unpaid child support arrears to $ 5 a week. He based his motion on the fact that the Social Security Administration had declared him disabled. At the time of his motion, Michael owed $ 90,000 in unpaid child support.

While Michael attached the Social Security Disability award letter to his motion, the award letter did not state the specific nature of his disability. He argued that according to Golian, the Family Part must presume that he was disabled, and incapable of working or paying support, and that the evidentiary burden had shifted to his ex-wife to prove that he was not disabled, by clear and convincing proof. Julie challenged Michael’s contention that he was unable to work or pay any child support. She further argued that it would not be fair or equitable to reduce his child support obligation to almost nothing because he still owed her over $ 90,000 in unpaid support.

Judge Jones started his opinion by noting that this case and Golian were incredibly different. In Golian, there was no issues dealing with children or child support, rather it dealt with a recipient of social security disability benefits, that was seeking alimony from her ex-husband. Moreover, the court in Golian limited its decision and stated that the decision was rendered “in the circumstances of this case.”

In Gilligan, the only evidence that the moving party submitted was the Social Security Disability award letter. Michael failed to submit any medical records or reports that might have shed some light on his diagnosis, or his ability or inability to work and earn an income. The only thing that the Social Security Disability award letter noted was that he was entitled to $ 1136 every month in Social Security Disability benefits because of a disability. Furthermore, there was no evidence on the record that he ever provided his ex-wife with an authorization allowing her to get copies of his records directly from the Social Security Administration to review in the case. Conversely, in Golian, the moving party offered supporting documents that specified her numerous medical conditions and issues. She also submitted evidence of her twenty-one hospitalizations, and twice a week visits for mental health treatments, in addition to a signed authorization that gave her ex-husband access to her Social Security Administration file, allowing him to review and scrutinize the medical basis for disability. Therefore, Judge Jones found that Golian does not hold that a social security disability award letter is the only proof necessary to prove an inability to work.

Judge Jones held that a party responsible for paying child support must submit more proof then just the Social Security Disability award letter to show the extent and nature of a disability. Then, if the moving party provides the award letter, in addition to sufficiently supporting medical documents specifying the disability, then the evidentiary burden shifts to the opposing party to prove that the moving party is in fact not disabled and has the ability to earn income over the substantial gainful employment activity threshold. Moreover, even if the moving party succeeds in shifting the burden to the opposing party, through the production of corroborating evidence, the burden of proof still remains on the moving party to prove that he or she is incapable of earning at least under substantial gainful employment activity income. If the moving party failed to meet this burden of proof, then a Family Part court can, under the discretion of the judge, impute income on to the moving party, up to the SGA maximum threshold.

In Gilligan, Michael, the moving party, only provided a Social Security Disability award letter, without any other medical evidence at all. While the award letter was relevant evidence, it was far from enough to reach determinations about the extent and nature of his disability, or his ability to work and pay child support. Therefore, Judge Jones ordered a hearing to determine if any income should be imputed on to him for the purpose of calculating child support.

The child support lawyers at our law firm are here to assist you today.