The end of a marriage can significantly change a family's finances, especially if a family separates from one household into two households. One or both spouses may need financial help through public assistance programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). While applicants can apply for welfare benefits before they divorce, they should check the eligibility criteria set by the laws of the states where they live.
Basic Eligibility for Welfare Benefits
The federal government provides funding through the TANF program to states, which implement their own cash-welfare programs to disperse their federal funds. Each state sets its own criteria to determine eligibility for welfare assistance. In general, states primarily use TANF funding to help needy families with children and women who are pregnant. States often focus on a welfare applicant's status as a caregiver of dependent children or an expectant mother rather than look at marital status.
Whether a welfare applicant has a single-parent or dual-parent household might affect the family's welfare eligibility, according to the financial criteria set by state law. In California, for example, the state's TANF criteria requires that one or both parents be absent from the household for an applicant to qualify for cash assistance. For a family with two parents, California law permits the household to qualify only if the principal wage earner is unemployed or underemployed in a part-time job. The income and size of the household, rather than the applicant's marital status, often determines eligibility and the amount of aid. Some states provide online calculators or eligibility tools that applicants can use to estimate their eligibility for TANF cash assistance or SNAP food stamps.
Cooperation with Child Support Services
States often require cooperation with child-support enforcement programs if parents apply for welfare benefits. In Montana, for example, the Department of Public Health and Human Services specifically bars financial assistance to households headed by parents who don't cooperate with the department in establishing the paternity of their dependent children or refuse to take other steps required in establishing child support. Accordingly, parents should check their states' child-support laws to see if child support issues might affect their eligibility for welfare. A parent who separates from a child's other parent may need to cooperate with state agencies in establishing child support, even if the couple hasn't filed for divorce.
Some states provide temporary aid to families who face emergency circumstances such as impending homelessness, eviction or an immediate need for food stamps. Emergency-benefits programs generally focus on providing immediate help to families with children or pregnant women. In emergency situations, it usually doesn't matter whether the applicant has filed for divorce yet; however, the applicant must still provide enough information to appear eligible for welfare benefits according to state law. To continue receiving benefits after the emergency has passed, the applicant must fully meet eligibility criteria required by the state.
The laws and regulations governing public assistance are under constant scrutiny and can change relatively quickly. It's prudent to research the most current material available or consult with a professional before taking action.
- Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: Policy Basics: An Introduction to TANF
- Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services: CalWorks Eligibility
- Delaware Health and Social Services: TANF Eligibility -- Grant Calculator
- USDA Food and Nutrition Service: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Pre-Screening Eligibility Tool
- Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- Legal Services of Northern California: Emergency Benefits
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