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Questions and Answers on the TANF 5-Year Time Limit

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded

There is a sixty-month (five-year) time limit for receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and SFA (State Family Assistance) cash assistance. The existence of the time limit does not mean that your family will automatically stop receiving cash assistance at the end of 60 months. #7150EN


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What is the TANF time limit?

There is a sixty-month (five-year) time limit for getting TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and SFA (State Family Assistance) cash assistance.  This does not mean your family will automatically stop getting cash assistance at the end of 60 months. DSHS will decide if you qualify for an “exception” to or “extension” of the time limit. WAC 388-484-0006 has more info.

What are the "exceptions" to the time limit?

The time limit does not apply if you are one of these:

  • an unemancipated pregnant or parenting minor living in a DSHS-approved living arrangement  

  • an American Indian or Native Alaskan adult, living in Indian country, and getting TANF/SFA during a period when the unemployment rate in your community is 50% or more

What are the possible "extensions" to the time limit?

You can get a TANF/SFA extension if you can show that DSHS should exempt you from WorkFirst participation requirements.  This means DSHS cannot or should not expect you to work full-time.  These exemptions can apply at any time, not just after 60 months.  You may qualify for an exemption if you are one of these:

  • An older needy caretaker relative (55 and older)

  • Caring for an adult relative with disabilities

  • Caring for a child with special needs

  • An adult with severe and chronic disabilities

To qualify for an exemption, you should have proof (examples:  of your age, your own disability, or the disability of the relative who needs you to care for him/her).  Ask your caseworker to refer you to a social worker for help getting proof. 

*DSHS reviews your eligibility for an exemption at least every twelve months.

If you do not qualify for an exemption, you will be eligible for a “hardship” extension of the time limit if any of these apply:

  • You are employed at least 32 hours a week.

  • You meet the Family Violence Option criteria (see WorkFirst and the Family Violence Amendment) and are taking part in the activities listed in your IRP.

  • You are working with the Children’s Administration to resolve child welfare issues involving any of your children in a dependency case for the first time.

  • Starting July 28, 2019: you meet the legal definition of homeless at RCW 43.185C.010: you are living outside or in a building not meant for human habitation or which you have no legal right to occupy, in an emergency shelter, or in a temporary housing program. RCW 74.08A.010.

*DSHS reviews your eligibility for these extensions at least every six to twelve months.

How does DSHS decide if I qualify for an extension?

Your DSHS case manager or social worker should review your case and figure out which extension should apply.  They will do this after you have reached your 52nd month of getting cash assistance (and before you reach the 60-month time limit).  Before you reach the time limit, DSHS will send you a notice saying if they approved you for an extension. 

DSHS is supposed to ask you about any barriers, such as hidden disabilities, that may make it hard for you to work or look for work. If DSHS does not ask, you should raise these issues yourself if you think they make it hard for you to participate. Ask DSHS for time to get proof of your condition and its effect on your day-to-day activities. If you have a medical provider, ask DSHS for a form your provider can fill out supporting your claim that a physical or mental health problem makes it hard for you to participate.

DSHS decided I do not qualify for an exception to or extension of the time limit. What can I do?

Ask for an Administrative Hearing and continuing benefits right away. See Representing Yourself at an Administrative Hearing.   

How long will DSHS extend the time limit?

For as long as you meet the criteria for an extension. DSHS will review the extension periodically to see if you still qualify.

I started getting TANF in another state. Does the time limit apply to me?

Yes. Any months you got cash assistance paid for by federal TANF funds count toward your 60-month time limit, no matter which state you got it in.  This only applies to cash assistance benefits you got on or after August 17, 1997, even if the other state started counting TANF months toward the time limit at an earlier date.

Does the 60-month time limit apply to months when I got only medical or food assistance?

No.  It only applies to TANF or SFA cash assistance.  It does not apply to:

  • food assistance

  • Medicaid 

  • diversion cash assistance

  • WorkFirst support services

  • childcare assistance 

Months when you got any of these benefits, but no cash assistance, do not count toward the time limit.  The time limit has no effect on your continuing to get these benefits.

Does the 60-month time limit apply to months I got cash assistance for only part of the month?


Does the 60-month time limit apply to months I got child support and only a little cash assistance?


What if I disagree that I have gotten sixty months of TANF?

Ask for an administrative hearing right away, before your benefits stop.  Make sure you ask for continuing benefits.  If you lose at the hearing (if the judge decides that DSHS calculated your number of months correctly), you may have to repay up to 60 days of cash assistance. See Representing Yourself at an Administrative Hearing and How to Fight an Overpayment of Cash or Medical Assistance.

You can also get legal help:

If you have a low-income and live outside King County, call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014 weekdays, 9:15 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. 

If you live in King County, call King County 2-1-1.  Dial 2-1-1 or 800-621-4636.


This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of July 2019.

© 2019 Northwest Justice Project. 1-888-201-1014.
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and individuals for non-commercial use only.)

Last Review and Update: Jun 12, 2019