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CHLP Wins Case of First Impression, in Appellate Division


On February 17, 2004, the New Jersey Appellate Division decidedBurns v. Edwards, Jr. (A-2683-02T5), reversing a lower court order establishing a child support obligation on the part of the defendant, whose sole source of income is Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The court accepted the arguments set forth by Roberta Luchansky, an attorney at CHLP's Collingswood office, who filed the appeal. In a case of first impression in New Jersey, the court held that a child support obligation cannot be assessed against a parent whose sole source of support is SSI.

On February 17, 2004, the New Jersey Appellate Division decided Burns v. Edwards, Jr. (A-2683-02T5), reversing a lower court order establishing a child support obligation on the part of the defendant, whose sole source of income is Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The court accepted the arguments set forth by Roberta Luchansky, an attorney at CHLP's Collingswood office, who filed the appeal. In a case of first impression in New Jersey, the court held that a child support obligation cannot be assessed against a parent whose sole source of support is SSI.

The defendant in the case, Benjamin Edwards, Jr., has a disability that prevents him from working. His only income is $576.25 per month in SSI benefits. All but $80.50 of those funds are paid directly to the boarding home in which he lives. The only discretionary income Edwards receives is $80.50, his "personal needs allowance." Herb Daley, an attorney at CHLP's Collingswood office, filed a motion to terminate Edwards's child support obligation. But on December 20, 2002, a Camden County judge ordered that Edwards pay $40 a month in child support and $10 a month toward arrears to the Camden County Board of Social Services Probation Department. In January 2003, Roberta Luchansky filed an appeal of that order.

SSI is a federal welfare program created in 1972 that awards minimally adequate benefits to indigents who are aged, blind, or disabled. Unlike Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which is financed by payroll deductions, SSI is financed out of general revenues and is not based on a beneficiary's prior work history. The Social Security Act originally protected SSI and SSDI from execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process. However, in 1975, Congress passed an amendment to the act allowing income withholding and garnishment from federal monies based on "remuneration from employment" for the enforcement of child support and alimony orders. Luchansky argued in her appellate brief that, since SSI is not based on "remuneration," it must remain immune from legal process.

In a long and well-reasoned opinion, Judge Fall analyzed the differences between SSI and SSDI, the principles behind child support, case law from other jurisdictions on the use of SSI benefits in calculating child support, and the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines. The opinion is available on the judiciary's website, www.judiciary.state.nj.us. Up until now, New Jersey judges have been setting child support obligations for SSI beneficiaries in amounts that vary county by county and judge by judge. This decision will have far-reaching effects throughout the state.

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