How to Get Social Security Benefits When Released From Prison

Prison inmate talking on a payphone
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Although you may be entitled to Social Security benefits, the payments will stop if you become a guest of the criminal justice system. Whether you're confined in a local jail or a maximum-security prison, the federal law that governs Social Security prevents any payments during your time inside. Once you are released, however, benefits will resume if you follow the required procedure and have the necessary documents.

Suspending Benefits During Confinement

The laws on Social Security allow the agency to suspend benefits for anyone who spends more than 30 days in any jail or prison as the result of a conviction for a criminal offense. This applies to retirement or disability benefits, as well as Supplemental Security Income. Spousal or family benefits are not affected. The unpaid benefits do not accumulate during the confinement, but are forfeited instead.

Reinstatement Process

To reinstate benefits, you must first be released. After that, contact Social Security either by phone or in person to submit an application. The agency requires a copy of your official release documents. If you were previously receiving SSI and were confined for more than 12 months, you must file a new application for benefits and go through the standard approval process. If Social Security discovers that benefits were wrongly paid during an incarceration, it can claim an overpayment and use the federal government's legal authority to levy assets or garnish wages to collect.

Timeline for Reinstatement

When you apply for reinstatement of benefits, an approval by Social Security means that the entitlement begins in the following month. For all programs, Social Security pays in the following month for benefits due to the beneficiary in the present month. A prisoner released in March, for example, may apply for reinstatement immediately. If the agency approves the application in March, April becomes his first month of eligibility and the first payment arrives in May.

Pre-Release Agreements

A prisoner who anticipates release in the near future may benefit from a pre-release agreement his institution has with Social Security. This gets the process rolling with an application before the release date, and in many cases will result in an approval soon after the release takes place. Social Security may also expedite the process if a prisoner can prove a financial emergency.