We, as legal services advocates, are constantly helping our clients with traditional legal issues like divorces, bankruptcies, evictions and landlord issues, consumer issues, etc. However, we must pay close attention to the importance of public benefits in maintaining our clients’ financial and emotional stability. Our clients are, by definition, low income. This means they may qualify for a wide array of benefits to which they are entitled, and, the loss of which can be devastating. Legal Services Corporation has always recognized the importance of public benefits and has mandated that South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) treat it as a “priority” issue. Nevertheless, those of us on the front lines are responsible for evaluating every client’s situation to ensure that each client receives all that he or she is entitled to, even if the initial legal problem has nothing to do with public benefits.
A common example of this is the effect that alimony may have on a client’s eligibility for housing, Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP) or SSI disability. It does a client little good to receive $400 a month in alimony if it means a loss of Medicaid or food stamps and an increase in their public housing rental costs. Any kind of monetary settlement, whether it be from a divorce or a consumer case, should be evaluated to determine how it may affect a client’s eligibility for public benefits.
Our intake service does a review for Medicaid and food stamps eligibility. It is then the advocates’ responsibility to follow up on this with the clients. We also consider other public benefits for which the client or any minor children may be eligible. For example, do any of the children have special needs? Are they eligible for special education services? What about healthcare benefits? Does the client have any health issues? What about health issues that prevent the client from working? Is the client eligible for Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income or vocational rehabilitation services?
At SCLS, we have an advocate in every office who specializes in public benefits cases. We also have a state-wide Public Benefits Unit whose members are experienced public benefits advocates. Because we know that public benefits may be the lifeline for some of our clients, we know the importance of fighting for these benefits on their behalf.