SSA Promises Better Protections for Domestic Violence Victims

Amy Schwartz-Wallace March 01, 2005

Victims of domestic violence who are forced to flee their homes frequently face complicated bureaucratic hurdles as they attempt to establish independence from their batterers. Thanks to advocacy by Empire Justice Center, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will alleviate at least one such barrier.

Empire Justice Center recently became aware of a case from Western New York in which a claimant had been receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits while living with her husband. She left the home that she jointly owns with her husband for the safety of a domestic violence shelter. Because she no longer had access to her husband’s income, she applied for SSI. She was originally denied SSI benefits as “over-resource,” allegedly because she owned a home in which she was not residing. Ultimately, she was approved for benefits, but only after she secured a statement from her husband/batterer that it would be an undue hardship on him to have to move out of the jointly owned property.

While this solution was apparently adequate in the case in question, such a resolution, which involves the cooperation of the batterer, could put other similarly situated victims in danger. Alternatively, other victims who need and would otherwise be eligible for SSI benefits may abandon their claims for fear of approaching their batterer for such a statement.

SSA’s relevant regulations and POMS sections contained no clear directives to claims representatives on how to handle these difficult situations. While several of the regulations could be interpreted in a manner that would allow for a resource exemption in such cases, none are clear-cut. Consequently, GULP urged SSA to issue clear directives to guarantee that victims of domestic violence do not have to place their safety at risk when attempting to ensure their financial stability in a time of crisis.

SSA has recently agreed to seek a regulatory change so that a jointly owned home will not be counted as a resource to an individual who is forced to leave the home because of domestic abuse. Although SSA indicated that its current policies serve to prevent any undue hardship or danger to victims of domestic abuse, it agreed to issue a reminder item to its field offices stating that SSA personnel are required to assist individuals in obtaining evidence and should take into consideration the individual’s circumstances in determining resource availability.

SSA will also emphasize to its field offices that since a home continues to be excluded from resources when an individual moves out but intends to return, the exclusion should continue to apply if the abused spouse intends to return home if the situation is resolved or if the batterer were not present. Finally, if necessary, SSA will issue conditional benefits for up to nine months, and waive the usual requirement of making reasonable efforts to sell the property. It will accept evidence such as a police report, restraining order or statement from the director of a shelter in lieu of evidence of making reasonable efforts to sell.

These changes should go a long way towards helping victims of domestic violence establish independence while remaining safe. Look for more information in these pages on SSA’s directives. In the meantime, please let us know of any cases involving similar problems, either resolved or unresolved.