Household finances may feel strained after separation from a spouse or partner. Newly separated spouses can find themselves needing help to pay living expenses on their own, even if they have never received government benefits before. Thankfully, the federal government has programs in place to assist in these types of situations. Financial circumstances, rather than marital status, usually determine eligibility for most types of benefits. If you have questions regarding your rights to specific types of benefits, you can consult with a public benefits attorney, legal aid nonprofit or visit the program's website for more guidance.
Federal Poverty Guidelines
The federal government generally does not consider marital status in its eligibility criteria to receive benefits. Instead, eligibility depends on the federal poverty guidelines, which the government publishes annually to set income limits based on the size of the applicant's household. If one spouse moves out after the couple's separation, the household size may decrease or the household may lose a source of income. Accordingly, the spouse applying for benefits may become eligible due to the changes in the household. In addition to the federal poverty guidelines, eligibility for government benefits may vary according to the laws and eligibility standards set by each state in distributing federal funding for benefits.
The federal government offers cash assistance through its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Each state determines a family's eligibility for TANF based on a variation of the federal poverty guidelines. This eligibility generally depends on household size, income and other financial criteria, rather than on the marital status of spouses or parents. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, over one-third of U.S. states limit TANF to households whose incomes fall below 50 percent of the poverty guidelines set by the federal government.
The federal government also provides funding to state agencies for food stamp programs. As with TANF, eligibility for food stamps depends on the household's size, income and other financial resources. A household cannot become ineligible for food stamps simply because two spouses separate. However, a spouse moving in or out of a home may change the household's size or income, which in turn may affect eligibility for the benefits.
Health Care Benefits
The federal government provides health insurance benefits to needy families through Medicaid. Eligibility for the government's health insurance programs depends on many criteria. Federal law provides Medicaid benefits for members of mandatory eligibility groups and also allows states to choose whether they provide coverage to members of optional eligibility groups. Eligibility criteria emphasizes coverage of families with children, pregnant women and other low-income applicants. As such, a spouse separated from a husband may be able to qualify, especially if the couple has children together.
Unlike federal programs such as TANF, food assistance and Medicaid, separation from a spouse may affect Social Security benefits. When women have not accrued Social Security benefits through their own employment, they may be eligible for benefits through their husbands' employment. If a couple divorces, a wife may be able to receive Social Security based on her husband's benefits if they were married for at least 10 years and she meets other criteria set by the Social Security Administration.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: HHS Poverty Guidelines for 2018
- Federal Register: Annual Update of the HHS Poverty Guidelines
- National Center for Children in Poverty: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Cash Assistance
- Social Security Online: Food Stamp Facts
- Social Security Online: What Every Woman Should Know
- LawHelp: Find Free Legal Help and Information About Your Legal Rights