Utah families who are struggling financially may turn to public assistance to help get them through a rough patch; however this system is meant only for those who truly need it and any fraudulent information used to obtain assistance unlawfully may result in welfare fraud.
The State of Utah has a generous welfare program, otherwise known as public assistance, which is defined in Utah Code 35A-1-102 as “services or benefits provide under Chapter 3, Employment Support Act; medical assistance ( . . . ); foster care maintenance payments ( . . . ); SNAP benefits; and any other public funds expended for the benefit of a person in need of financial, medical, food, housing, or related assistance. “
Public assistance isn’t for everyone. Many who think they need welfare end up not meeting the requirements. To find out if one qualify for benefits, Utah Code 76-8-1203 states individuals need to provide the following information that will determine whether or not they are eligible for help “including the person’s current:
a) Marital status;
b) Household composition [including immediate family members as well as other persons that make up the household such as roommates or live-in significant others];
c) Employment [even jobs that are paid under the table];
d) Earned and unearned income, as defined by rule [including gambling winnings, alimony, child support, etc.]
e) Receipt of monetary and in-kind gifts that may affect the person’s eligibility; [cash gifts or gifts such as food and household goods that would affect the needs of the client’s family]
f) Assets that may affect the person’s eligibility; [homes, vehicles, stock, gold etc.]”
When a person does not qualify for benefits, they may choose another route to elevate their financial burden such as help from family, assistance from religious denominations, or changes to employment or living arrangements to accommodate their needs or the needs of their family. Occasionally a person may choose to stretch the truth or flat out lie on the information they disclose when applying for welfare in an attempt to gain access to public assistance they otherwise wouldn’t qualify for. When this is done, or if the person otherwise “uses, transfers, acquires, traffics in, falsifies, or possesses SNAP benefits [or a SNAP card] ( . . . ) in a manner not allowed by law” it is considered welfare fraud, or public assistance fraud, and it is a serious offense.
The severity of welfare fraud penalties depends on the total valued amount of the benefits such as cash, food, and medical that were appropriated unlawfully from the public assistance system. According to Utah Code 76-8-1206, it is a
a) “second degree felony if the value is or exceeds $5,000; [which can be anywhere from 1-15 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000]
b) third degree felony if the value is or exceeds $1,500 but is less than $5,000; [up to 5 years and prison and a fine of no more than $5,000]
c) class A misdemeanor if the value is or exceeds $500 but is less than $1,500; [one year maximum in jail and a fine up to $2,500] and
d) class B misdemeanor if the value is less than $500. [up to 6 months in jail and a possible fine of $1,000 or less.]”
While those who intentionally take advantage of public assistance should expect to face charges of welfare fraud, often it is those who make innocent errors with information that end up in deep water. Some situations which may occur that cause a person to unintentionally commit welfare fraud may include:
• When a qualifying child lives part or full time with the other parent;
• If a significant other moves back into the household;
• A temporary increase of hours at place of employment;
• Side jobs or other self-employed work such as babysitting, house cleaning, and even selling crafts; and
• Using food assistance to pick up grocery items for a friend or non-qualifying relative.
These are just a handful of situations that welfare recipients may find themselves in where they either forget to report it, or are unaware that they are breaking the law. It is important that those who are seeking public assistance are cautious with their answers and ask questions if they are unsure of any rules or if there are terms in which they are unfamiliar with. Additionally, any changes to income or other monetary gains, marital status, household composition or living arrangements, assets, or gifts must be reported immediately. If a person is unsure whether a factor or item should be mentioned, they should report it anyway. For legal counsel regarding charges of welfare fraud, contact a criminal defense attorney.