SSI Benefits Exempt from Garnishment (Child Support)

In Tennessee Department of Human Services ex rel. Young v. Young, 802 S.W.2d 594 (Tenn. 1990) the Youngs were divorced and Ms. Young was awarded custody of their daughter. Id. at 595. Mr. Young was ordered to pay $ 100 per month for child support. Id. Mr. Young fell behind in his payments and the Department of Human Services filed contempt proceedings against him. Id. He was found to be in arrears and was ordered to resume the $ 100 monthly payments. Id. The judgment also called for garnishment of his "SSI check" through the Social Security Administration. Id. At the hearing before the domestic relations judge, Mr. Young established that his income was limited to the Supplemental Security Income he received in the amount of $ 386 per month. Id. The judge, however, affirmed the garnishment order. Id. Mr. Young's appeal to the court of appeals was also unsuccessful. Id. Thereafter he appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, who concluded that his claim of exemption was meritorious. Id. After analyzing the same statutes at issue in the case at bar, the Tennessee Supreme Court reasoned that Section 407(b) specifically prohibits modification of the anti-garnishment provision in Section 407(a) other than by express reference, and that Section 659, enacted after the provision in Section 1383(d)(1), makes no express reference to the exemption of SSI benefits from the grant of sovereign immunity. Id. at 599. The court further explained that Section 659 applies only to monies paid by the federal government, "'the entitlement to which is based upon remuneration for employment.'" Id. The court reasoned that because SSI benefits are paid to those who are by definition unemployed and unemployable, the receipt of SSI benefits cannot be said to be based upon "'remuneration for employment.'" Id. The court concluded that by definition, SSI payments are not included in the funds to which "'express reference'" is made and that SSI benefits fall within the pre-existing anti-garnishment provision of Section 407(a). Id. The court declined to hold "'that the recipient's family falls within a 'protected category' so as to create an inescapable obligation upon the recipient.'" Id. Thus, the court held that Mr. Young's SSI benefits were not subject to the garnishment order entered in the trial court. Id.