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Memorandum of Support

Empire Justice Memo of Support: Fully Disclose that Public Assistance is a Debt

(With Recommendations)

A.547 (Gibson)/S.311 (Diaz)

This bill takes an important first step towards clear notification to recipients of public assistance that the cash assistance they receive is a debt owed to New York State.  While we support this legislation, we believe the bill should go further to advise public assistance recipients of their related rights, and to require that local districts acknowledge these rights as well.

This bill would amend Social Services Law (SSL) §106, which permits counties to require public assistance recipients to execute a mortgage in favor of the county in the amount of public assistance received, as a condition of eligibility for public assistance.      

Unfortunately, SSL §106 provides no guidance as to what assistance can be recovered by a social services district and as currently written, fails to provide adequate safeguards to homeowners to protect them against erroneous lien calculations for mortgages or liens taken under SSL §106.  The law only permits cash assistance to be recovered as part of the lien, however we have seen social services districts which have erroneously attempted to recover:

  • The value of child care assistance received;
  • The value of food stamps received;
  • The value of HEAP received.

In addition, local districts rarely advise applicants that if they refuse to give the local district a mortgage, their children are still eligible for a grant of assistance. Bujinicki v. Blum, 77 A.D. 2d 809 (4rth Dep’t 1980).

Finally, local districts sometimes erroneously forget to provide credit for any child support collected on behalf of the public assistance recipient, which is retained by the social services district to repay itself for public assistance paid to the mortgage holder.

Shockingly, public assistance recipients who give the local social services district a mortgage against their homes currently receive no notice providing them with a clear account of how much public assistance has been given and is recoverable by the district.  Often, individuals are unaware of the “open-ended” nature of the lien placed on their property and do not learn about the amount of encumbrance until they attempt to sell or refinance their homes.  We believe that yearly accounting statements will provide transparency and assure accuracy.  Such annual statements will provide the homeowner with an opportunity to check for accuracy and point out improper charges while they still have the relevant paperwork regarding their benefits close at hand.

We also want to be sure that former recipients who are no longer on assistance and have the means to begin repaying the obligation have clear information on the amount of the debt and how to make payments.

Recommendations: In order to provide better protection for public assistance applicants and recipients, we recommend that SSL §106 be amended to include:

  • Language that states Food Stamps, Child Care and HEAP are unrecoverable.
  • Language that requires local social service districts to provide public assistance recipients with a yearly accounting statement, clearly disclosing the amount of the lien on the property, and possible ways in which to repay the debt. Including:
    • A requirement that no mortgage or lien taken under SSL §106 shall be valid unless an annual accounting of the assistance owed minus child support collected is given to the homeowner until the lien is paid or forgiven.  This is good accounting practice.  Providing a yearly accounting until the lien is forgiven will allow homeowners to check their current records of public assistance paid and verify that the amount of the mortgage is correct.  Annual accountings are necessary to protect public assistance recipients from erroneous lien amounts.
    • Clear and understandable notice regarding the penalty that will be imposed for failure to give the Social Services District a deed or mortgage.  Applicants and recipients who are asked to provide the social services district with a lien or mortgage should be provided, at the time the request is made, with a statement explaining that the failure or refusal to provide a deed or sign a mortgage will result in the needs of the adult being removed from the grant but that the children will remain eligible.  This is currently the law, but is often not explained to applicant homeowners. Clear disclosure will aid applicants when making decisions when seeking public assistance.

This memo was prepared by:

Susan C. Antos

Empire Justice Center
119 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY  12210 

(518) 462-6831
(518) 935-2852