Veterans of the United States Armed Forces are people that should be celebrated and supported in an effort to show appreciation for their time-in-service. Unfortunately, that is not the reality for our soldiers as they return home and must often fight many non-combat battles. Homelessness, mental health issues and unemloyment often plague veterans as they transition from military to civilian life. Along with these difficulties of adjustments are debt-related issues such as spousal and child support obligations. Based on federal law, veteran’s benefits should not be garnished, but, regrettably, this law is not always honored in veteran child support cases. According to the American Bar Associate or ABA (2011), under U.S.C. §5301 (a) (1), benefits paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are not subject to levy, seizure, or attachment. Since child support money is deducted through an order of garnishment, VA benefits should be excluded from such collections. This is not always the outcome when decisions concerning child and spousal support are being argued in favor of the custodial parent. We, as Americans, see again that certain rules and laws apply to certain individuals and in certain situations. These rules and laws seem to be used more when they are used to shelter those that need little protection and attack the most vulnerable. Laws should always protect veteran benefits and should not be used as a convenience to those that the government deem worthy of protection.
One key reasons that supports the government’s ability to garnish veteran’s benefits is that ‘family’ support and ‘child’ support have been decided to mean exactly the same thing as far as deductions are concerned. Even though a veteran’s disability benefits are compensation for the veteran, certain courts have forced the vet to satisfy debts accrued due to family obligations. A veteran can be held in contempt of court and jailed if he/she fails to pay support even if their disability is proven to be their only form of income. This is because the disability compensation somehow belongs to other people besides the person that sacrificed life for country. According to the ABA (2011), in the case of Rose v. Rose (1981), the Supreme Court held that neither the Veteran’s Benefits provision of Title 38 nor the garnishment provisions of The Child Support Enforcement Act of Title 42 indicate unequivocally that a veteran’s disability benefits are provided solely for the veteran’s support. This ruling and others that are similar, cross a very thin line as to who is entitled to a veterans’ benefits after that individual has been harmed during duty. Disability compensation, as defined by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is a tax-free monetary benefit paid to veterans with disabilities that are a result of disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service. That should mean that disability money is paid for the sole purpose of caring for the needs of the veteran. If there is a need, other money should be set aside to care for children similar to the system practiced by the Social Security Administration. Based on the legal definition, there is no mention of the veteran being required to share the compensation payment nor is there a mention of who may be entitled to receive money from the disability payment. The seizing of money paid to compensate a person for pain and suffering should not be available for garnishment or offset in order to satisfy a debt.
Another underhanded manner in which the federal government is able to garnish allegedly exempt veteran compensation is by invoking a clause listed in Section §3.750-1, the Retired Military section of the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.). Military retired pay is payment received by a veteran that is classified as retired by the Service Department. There are many areas included under this umbrella of employers, including the Armed Forces and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but the same rules apply when garnishments or deductions are attached to payments. The retirement money and disability compensation can be received concurrently and in full in certain situations. According to Cornell University (2009), a veteran who is entitled to military retired pay and disability compensation for a service-connected disability rated 50% or more, or has a combination of service-connected disabilities, is entitled to receive both payments. This entitlement is subject to phase-in periods. The phase-in period is a 10-year period in which military retirement pay was increased 10% each year until the recipient began receiving full military retirement pay (Ryan Guina, 2014). A veteran may be awarded both forms of payment after 20 years of service and in compliance with Chapter 61 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code. In all other situations, veterans receiving both retirement pay and disability compensation must file a waiver to receive full benefits. This waiver is required, as explained by the Department of Veterans Affairs (2009), if the veteran’s disability retired pay exceeds the amount of retired pay that the veteran would have received based on length of service. The money that is waived is subject to garnishment.
While it is somewhat true that the money is, and should be, considered disability compensation, the money in question has raised serious doubts as to its real exemption status. On one hand, the money should be considered disability as it pertains to providing income to a soldier who was injured during his or her service. This money should not be considered retirement money. Under this premise, these benefits are specifically exempt by federal law of child support withholdings, (Bureau of Fiscal Services, 2005). The federal government has even found a way to ignore this law and garnish these protected benefits. There have been several cases over the years that contradict the federal law and have granted garnishment orders against a veteran’s supposed protected income. According to the ABA (2011), child support may be awarded based on disability payments to either parent being considered as income. There are no mentions of retirement waivers or phase-in periods. Even though the federal law prohibits veteran disability money from being touched, veterans are still having their money withheld.
One reason that has been provided by the court system is that federal law does not prohibit treating child support obligor’s veteran administration disability benefits as income under support guidelines, (ABA, 2011). Again, the federal statute clearly states that child support withholdings cannot be deducted from these specific benefits. The statutory exemption, 38 U.S.C. § 5301(a), was not considered when the Supreme Court held that a father was forced to be forced to pay child support from his disability compensation. The justification provided by the US Supreme Court was that the benefits were intended to support not only the veteran but the veteran’s family as well, (ABA, 2011). It seems as if the rules and laws are meant to be followed except when it comes to the state and federal governments and how officials collect money from citizens. It is quite insulting that one government agency exempts a certain form of income from offsets, while another agency bypasses the statute in order to steal money from our wounded veterans. Many veterans rely on their disability compensation as their only source of income. This does not deter the judges from attaching garnishment orders to that money. Again, in the case of Rose vs. Rose, the law was altered in order to abide by the laws of garnishing disability benefits. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that none of the garnishment provisions of The Child Support Act of Title 42 preempt the authority of state courts to enforce a child support order against a veteran, (ABA, 2011). This directly violated the garnishment rule mandated by 38 U.S.C. Furthermore, the court ruled that the child support can be enforced even where the veteran’s income is composed of VA disability benefits, (ABA, 2011). This money is supposed to provide disabled veterans some financial stability as they battle life after service. It was not meant to be returned to the federal government as free money.
Homeless veterans face a more difficult time when dealing with child support issues. One way these vets receive some type of assistance with child support and other issues is by offering Stand Down Events. These events are hosed by several organizations and a number of resources to the most brave Americans One of the most important of these resources, along with health screening, food and shelter, is the legal counseling provided to homeless vets. Child support issues are covered in these counseling sessions. According to Administration for Children & Families or ACF (2012), about half of the states have more than 10,000 veterans in their child support caseload. The government being permitted to garnish the compensation money could mean the difference between having a home and becoming or remaining homeless. It has already been established that veterans face an array of barriers in addition to those faced by nonveteran non-custodial parents. In addition to the difficulty of finding employment and earning low-incomes, veterans are older than other parents, they are more likely to have an interstate case and they are more likely to have higher child support arrears, (ACF, 2012). When dealing with arrears, a majority of the money owed is comprised of interest, late fees, penalties, and court fees. If and when the disability money is garnished, as with any payment received for child support, the state will deduct money owed to it before disbursing any money to the families. This is money that could be used to assist the disabled veteran and his or her children.
The states have no right to, first, disobey the federal law and garnish untouchable money and second, retain the money so that no family member benefits from the garnishment. There is very little being done to help our heroes deal the child support obligations when they cannot afford the payments. The three day Stand Down events may help temporarily but there is no information detailing the long-term success or failures of these events. Counties boast about distributing pamphlets to parents or reviewing case files, but there are little remedies available to assist veteran parents dig themselves out of their deep financial graves. Child support obligations not only hurt financially, but it can have a negative impact on one’s mental well-being. Child support debt can also be a psychological barriers to reestablishing family relationships, (ACF, 2012). Couple this with other mental illnesses often suffered by veterans such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, the end results are bound to be disastrous.
The government must be held accountable for disobeying its own laws. By taking money paid to compensate injuries suffered under the threat of death in order to satisfy an often exaggerated debt is akin to stealing benefits from 9/11 survivors to cover debt that accrued after they responded to the terrorist attack. These people deserve every medal, every honor, and every dollar earned during their commitment to our country. If more money is needed to support children of veterans, the federal government should provide that money. The federal government has already declared this money exempt from liens, seizures and attachments so states should not be permitted to loophole itself into the bank accounts of our disable veterans. As this country fights for reform to the child support system, we must consider our brave women and men who have been promised compensation if injured during service to the country. The US must restore that promise, and it must start by enforcing the statutory exemption 38 U.S.C. Until we force a change in child support guidelines, we must force the government to, at least, abide by the laws that are already established. It is time to starting to start treating our veterans, disabled, and otherwise, with the respect that they truly deserve when they return home.
Administration for Children & Families. (2012, November). Child support participation in stand down events | Office of child support enforcement | Administration for children and families. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/child-support-participation-in-stand-down-events
American Bar Association. (2011, September). Fact sheet-V.A. payments and family support. Retrieved from http://www.americanbar.org/.../201109_flmc_vapayments.pdf
Bureau of Fiscal Services. (2005, March). Treasury offset program. Retrieved from https://www.fms.treas.gov/.../dmexmpt.pdf
Concurrent receipt rules - Concurrent retirement disability pay (CRDP). (2014, March 4). Retrieved from http://themilitarywallet.com/concurrent-receipt-military-retirement-pay/
Cornell University Law School. (2009, April 5). 38 CFR 3.750 - Entitlement to concurrent receipt of military retired pay and disability compensation. | LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved from http://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/38/3.750
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Compensation home. Retrieved from http://www.benefits.va.gov/compensation/
There are endless news reports concerning ‘deadbeat’ roundups and proposals of stricter child support legislation in an effort to increase child support collections. There is, however, a lack of information and articles that promote the limited number of work-oriented programs that are being offered to noncustodial parents across the country. While most states only offer one or two programs for noncustodial parents, others offer multiple programs in several counties across the state. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures or NCSL (2014), as of February 2014, 30 states and the District of Columbia are operating 77 work-oriented child support programs. This is an extremely low number of programs considering that there are 15,588,775 total open child support cases nationwide and most child support debt is held by parents with low or no income. For those unemployed parents, these job programs are critical in helping to remove barriers that hinder them from finding and maintaining long-term employment. Not to mention, having employment for these individuals can literally mean the difference between freedom and imprisonment. If the child support system is in operation to truly benefit the children, there needs to be more work-oriented programs for the parents so that they may provide steady and reliable payments. Child support programs have been proven an effective vehicle for programs that assist noncustodial parents in overcoming barriers to economic stability (NCSL, 2014). It is then a wonder why states with hundreds of thousands (two with over a million) child support cases, do not offer more work-oriented programs for those struggling noncustodial parents.
The state with the most programs offered to parents is New York with a reported 12 programs. Since the state has an open caseload of 920,000, such programs are not only necessary but critical to parents that have been sued for child support. Two of the programs are funded by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and Federal State Employment Tax (FSET) funds while other programs are funded by the individual counties. The Department of Labor or DOL offered a program which provided unemployed noncustodial parents with transitional job placements, case management, and other support services (Office of Child Support, 2014). With the country still recovering from the recession, accompanied with other factors which prohibit parents from finding and keeping employment, programs such as these need to be offered on a continuous basis. Unfortunately for parents in Onondaga County New York, the DOL grant ended on December 31, 2014. There was no mention of the grant being funded in 2015, but considering that a New York parent could face up to four years in prison for a nonsupport conviction, these work-oriented programs should always be funded and available for unemployed, low-income parents.
Michigan is a state that proudly posts its arrests of parents that fall behind on child support payments, fails to mention that it offers five work-oriented child support programs for struggling parents. The programs rely on a variety of funding sources including a grant from the Federal Office Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), however, the grant expired in September of last year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014), Michigan reported one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 6.7% as of November 2014. This unemployment number should mean that the number of programs offered will increase from five to an amounted needed to satisfy the demand of unemployed parents that are actively seeking work.
It is unfortunate that Michigan, along with all other states, criminalize parents for being low-income and being unable to afford outrageous amounts of child support debt. Because of this factor, the four remaining programs offered in Michigan are only offered after the court system has become involved with the case. For example, Charlevoix County provides a case manager to assist the parent with managing their case. According OSCE (2014), a Friend of the Court (FOC) staff member provides intensive case management, individualized child support services, assessments, job search assistance, and referrals to unemployed noncustodial parents who are court-ordered to seek work. These fundamental services should be made available to all of the parents included in the nearly one million open cases in Michigan, if employment services are requested by the parent. It is absurd to offer such a valuable helping hand to parents only after they have been jailed and the court has ordered participation in a jobs program. Early access to these programs could prevent parents from being sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of refusing to support their children, thus, saving the taxpayers money that is spent to house a prisoner. Preventative maintenance is key to the reduction of arrears and the improvement of collection rates as gainful employment can be achieved through these programs.
Florida has an open child support caseload of 854,923 as of May 2014, but only offers one work-oriented child support program for its unemployed noncustodial parents. In Duval and Nassau Counties in Jacksonville, there were only 282 noncustodial parents served by program funded by the federal child support enforcement agency in 2013. The OSCE (2014), reported that the child support program in the Jacksonville area works with several employment agencies to find jobs for unemployed noncustodial parents. There are no reports announcing the success of the, but a parent does not have to be court ordered in order to receive employment assistance. Even when considering the declining unemployment rate at a reported 5.8% in November, 2014, noncustodial parents still need assistance when seeking employment. This, especially since the punishment for failing to provide for dependents is a felony in Florida and can result in up to five years in prison. Even though jailing a person for owing is debt is illegal in the United States, people should be able to rely on help when it relates to securing a job so that they can avoid prison.
The states with the largest number of open child support cases, California and Texas, also fall short in providing significant assistance for parents when faced with roadblocks to gainful employment. California reports 1,209,703 in open child support cases yet only offers six work-oriented child support programs. With one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 7.2%, one would think that the number of programs offered would increase since, statistically, most working parents pay child support. The programs offered are funded by different sources and some are maintained by the courts. There is no specific data provided that specifies success and failure rates, however, it is known that these programs are a necessity in child support enforcement. Although, child support enforcement is, arguably, unconstitutional, the government should offer some type of relief for low-income parents as a form of fairness in the unjust pursuit for the collection of money. Demanding money from people that struggle to provide basic living needs and jailing those that fail to meet those obligations is akin to cruel and unusual punishment. Offering work-oriented programs does not justify the punishments executed against delinquent parents, but it can offer a shelter, of sorts, from critics of the child support program as a whole. As long as it can be said that something is offered to the poor, it can hardly be said that what is offered is not enough.
Texas fares no better when allegedly offering employment assistance for their unemployed parents. Currently Texas has one program which is funded by TANF and Incentive funds to help parents in 31 counties throughout the state. According to OSCE (2014), NCP Choices provides enhanced child support and compliance monitoring and employment services for noncustodial parent who are unemployed or underemployed and are not compliant with their child support obligations. There are over approximately 1,500,000 open child support cases in Texas, but the program only served a little over 3500 parents in 2013, (OSCE, 2014). The number of parents with access to the program is just as ridiculous as almost every other aspect of the child support system as it relates to low-income people. To claim that a lack of funds prohibits the government from providing more employment assistance to vulnerable parents would not be a viable excuse when examining the money collected and retained by child support enforcement. According to The Administration of Children & Families or ACF (2014), Texas reported $18,533 939 in 2013 in undistributed child support collections and a total of $88,239,793 for the past five years. This is money that the state adds to future budgets that would be better utilized funding programs that assist parents in finding employment. Texas also reported its state and federal shares of child support collections at $17,767,696 and $16,025,140 respectively in 2013, (ACF, 2014). This is money that could diverted from costs associated with posting pictures of delinquent parents, ‘deadbeat’ roundups, and housing prisoners to job programs for the less fortunate parents that are constantly being funneled through the family court system due to nonpayment of child support.
It is, and should be acknowledged again, that incarcerating people for owing a debt is an actual crime and the targets are low-income and poor people. Child support debt continues to balloon because of double digit interest rates, fines, and penalties associated with late child support payments and, yet, there are very few programs available to meet the demands of unemployed parents. The cold hard truth is that the government, county, state, and federal, care nothing about the welfare of low-income children or families. If the government did care, the children would be the true beneficiaries of all money collected on their behalf, instead of what the government allows to trickle-down to the families. The work-oriented child support programs seems more of an afterthought designed to pacify the opposition when questions are asked and the country becomes unsettled over the treatment of parents trapped in the child support system. The noncustodial parents must be provided the means to pay support once the judgment has been rendered or face a lifetime of debt and a revolving prison door. Again, I say, that the child support system in America in unfair, at least, and unconstitutional, at best, and needs desperately to be reformed. Offering punishments with no means of defense is worse than sentencing a person to prison with legal representation. Unfortunately, both situations apply to low-income parents as they are consumed by the child support agencies and court systems, not to mention the debt that they are supposed to repay with little to no money. Something must change before all parents are victims of modern day slavery by way of the child support system.
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2014, June 20). Work-Oriented child support programs. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/work-oriented-child-support-programs.aspx
The Administration of Children & Families. (2014, April 1). FY2013 Preliminary report - Table P-16 | Office of child support enforcement | Administration for children and families. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/fy2013-preliminary-report-table-p-16
Office of the Child Support Enforcement. (2014, February). Work-Oriented programs for noncustodial parents | Office of child support enforcement | Administration for children and families. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/work-oriented-programs-for-noncustodial-parents-with-active-child-support
The Administration for Children & Families. (2014, April 1). FY2013 Preliminary report - Table P-14 | Office of child support enforcement | Administration for children and families. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/fy2013-preliminary-report-table-p-14
The Administration of Children & Families. (2014, April 1). FY2013 Preliminary report - Table P-15 | Office of child support enforcement | Administration for children and families. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/fy2013-preliminary-report-table-p-15
United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2014, November). Unemployment rates for States. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/web/laus/laumstrk.htm