Supplemental Security Income pays benefits to aged, blind or disabled persons with low income and modest desources who need financial assistance. It’s designed to help YOU, if you are…
• Age 65 or older (whether disabled or not) OR
• Any age and are blind or otherwise disabled AND you have a low income and few financial resources, and are in financial need.
If you (or others you know) fit this description, SSI may be able to provide regular cash payments to help you meet your basic needs for food, clothing and shelter—even if you have not paid into the Social Security system.
SSI is a federal income supplement (“welfare”) program funded by general tax revenues, not by FICA payroll deductions a/k/a Social Security taxes. However, since they are uniquely set up for it, the Social Security Administration (SSA) handles all SSI procedures: the application process, determining who is eligible and who is not, appeals if denials are contested, funds disbursement, reduction or discontinuation of payments to those no longer fully eligible, etc.
No matter where you live in the USA, there is probably an SSA facility not far from you. With national headquarters in Baltimore, MD, and nearly 60,000 employees, the SSA has 1,230 local field offices, plus 10 regional offices, six processing centers, 164 hearing offices, five National Hearing Centers, an Appeals Council, and numerous service centers that can be accessed via a national toll-free number.
As of September 2016, there are approximately 8,287,000 SSI recipients (out of a total U.S. population of about 318.9 million). The number increased during the recent Great Recession, no doubt due to massive unemployment and less reluctance to apply for aid. So if you’re eligible and need SSI assistance but have been embarrassed to apply, don’t be. If you’re like most recipients, your lack of sufficient income or resources was caused by conditions beyond your control. For more detailed information on SSI eligibility, go to https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-eligibility-ussi.htm
This article can save you time by helping you avoid common errors or omissions, and by alerting you to the documents required to prove your eligibility. The figures shown are approximate and are subject to change.
How Supplemental Security Income differs from Social Security Disability Insurance, and how it’s similar
Since both SSI and SSDI are administered by the Social Security Administration and have similar initials, this often leads to confusion. However, the programs are quite different.
As noted, SSI is funded by general tax revenues of the United States—and, in most states, by additional state funds—while SSDI is funded entirely by FICA (Social Security) taxes.
As also noted, SSI pays benefits to those who are…
- 65 or older, even if not disabled, OR
- Blind or otherwise disabled, regardless of age
…who have limited financial resources and are in need of monetary assistance, even if they have not paid any or enough FICA taxes to qualify for SSDI.
SSDI, on the other hand, pays benefits only to persons who…
- Are less than 65 years of age (if older, they may qualify for Medicare)
- Have a qualifying disability lasting 12 months or more, and
- Have paid FICA taxes long enough to qualify for SSDI benefits…regardless of their current income, financial resources or any need of financial assistance.
What SSI provides—how much and how often
SSI benefits are paid at different rates depending on several variables. For 2017, the basic monthly federal amount is $735 for an eligible individual and $1,103 ($551.50 each) for an eligible couple. The average monthly federal payment per person was about $540 in September 2016. All else being equal, the blind or disabled receive the most, while those 65 or older receive the least. At times, there is an automatic cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). In 2017 there is an increase of 0.3 percent, or about $26 for the year. In addition, most states (except Arizona, Mississippi, North Dakota and West Virginia) supplement federal SSI payments with amounts vary by state and are determined in part by your living arrangements, such as living independently or in a nursing home.
If you qualify for SSI benefits, you will receive monthly payments directly from the SSA, sent electronically to your personal account at a bank, S&L, credit union or some other financial institution. It can be a checking or savings account, a money market account, a certificate of deposit (CD), or even a Christmas club account.
It is important to know that the SSA strongly recommends that it be an individual—not a joint—account. That’s because with a joint account, anyone named on the account can use the funds, for any purpose. To encourage you to set up an individual account, to help ensure that your SSI payments are used only for their intended purpose—for your food, clothing and shelter—the SSA considers all the money in your joint account to be yours, even if it isn’t. Of course, this adds to the amount of your financial resources known to the SSA, and if the total exceeds SSI limits, you can be denied SSI benefits.
SSI payments can also be made via the Direct Express Debit MasterCard program, which may be more convenient if you travel frequently, are not near a financial institution, or wish to keep the payments as confidential as possible. However, a debit card may not have the same financial protection as a bank account or credit card in regard to loss, theft or misuse.
Once you are eligible for SSI payments, you will receive them on the 1st of each month. If eligible for both SSI payments and Social Security benefits, you will receive them on the 3rd of each month. If those dates fall on a weekend, payments are made the preceding Friday.
How your financial situation helps determine eligibility for SSI
To help conserve available funds and prevent fraud, the SSI program has set limits to the amount of income and financial resources each recipient can have. In 2016, the monthly wage income limits (in general) are $1,551 for an adult individual and $2,286 for a couple with no children. The resource limits are $2,000 for each adult or child, or $3,000 for each couple. The states that supplement SSI payments may have different income limits. To find out what they are in your state, call your local SSA office.
Not every dollar you receive is counted as income. Nor is everything you own counted as a financial resource. Generally, the more income you have, the less your SSI benefit will be. And if your countable income is over the allowable limit, you cannot receive any SSI benefits. However, some of your income may not actually count as income for SSI purposes.
“Income,” according to terms of the program, is money or other things of value you receive, such as wages, self-employment earnings, tips, spare-time income, Social Security benefits, workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits, military pay and allowances, VA benefits, state disability payments, railroad retirement benefits, civil service benefits and pensions.
It also includes certain royalties, honoraria, interest income, sheltered workshop payments, food, shelter, disaster relief funds, proceeds of yard sales, proceeds of a life insurance policy, other insurance payments to you, inheritance of cash or property, annuity payments, dividends, rental or lease income, strike pay or other union benefits, settlements, alimony, child support, awards (including court-ordered ones), etc.
Most people don’t realize that they will also include money from friends or relatives, gifts, lottery or sweepstakes winnings, gambling profits and other prizes,
If you are under age 18, part of your parents’ income and resources are counted. If you are married, part of your spouse’s income and resources are counted.
The SSA does not count the following as income:
- The first $20 each month of most of your income.
- The first $65 each month you earn from working.
- Half the amount each month over $65 you earn from working.
- The value of any food stamps you receive.
- The value of shelter you get from a private nonprofit organization.
- Most home energy assistance.
- Money you borrow and spend in the same month.
- Some of your wages or scholarships, if you are an eligible student.
- Wages you use to pay for items (e.g., a wheelchair) or services that help you to do your work, if you are disabled but working.
- Any wages you use for work expenses (e.g.,transportation to/from work), if you are blind but working.
- Some of the income you use for training, if you are disabled or blind.
Not counted as resources are the following:
- The home you live in, the land it’s on and related buildings.
- Household goods and personal effects up to $2,000 in value.
- One wedding ring and one engagement ring, regardless of value.
- Necessary health aids; e.g., wheelchair or prosthetic device.
- Grants or scholarships for educational expenses for up to nine months.
- Life insurance policies with a face value of $1,500 or less.
- Your car (usually), regardless of value; additional vehicles may be counted.
- Non-business property, up to a reasonable value, needed for financial support.
- Burial plots or funds of up to $1,500 in value for you and for family members.
The following are counted as income or as financial resources:
- Current net value of your real estate—other than the home you live in.
- Bank and other financial accounts: checking, savings, brokerage, etc.
- Cash, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, CDs, personal property, etc.
- Money you borrowed but did not spend in that month.
- Money or items you loaned to others but fully expect to get back.
When considering whether or not to apply for SSI benefits, it is very important that you list all the income you typically receive or fully expect to receive and their amounts, and also list your financial resources, to see if the totals are less than the SSI allowable limits.
Where SSI recipients can and cannot live
In order to be eligible for SSI benefits, you must live in the United States* and be a U.S. citizen or national. Or, as noted above, certain non-citizen residents can qualify.
*Or in the Northern Mariana Islands (e.g., Saipan), a U.S. territory.
Even if you meet the other requirements for eligibility, exactly where you live in the U.S. can make a difference. If your legal residence is a house, apartment, mobile home, hotel, cabin or other common type of residence, you can probably get SSI. You may also be eligible if you live in any of the following:
- Publicly operated community residence with no more than 16 residents
- Public institution, to attend approved educational or job training classes
- Public emergency shelter for the homeless
- Public or private institution, with Medicaid paying more than half the cost of your care (a small SSI benefit may be possible)
With a few exceptions, you usually cannot get SSI if you live in a city or county rest home, halfway house or other public institution. For more detailed information, go to https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-living-ussi.htm
Making changes to qualify for SSI
Do not try to manipulate your income in order to qualify for SSI. You might be tempted to cut your work hours to earn less or hide some income, but this could easily backfire on you.
You need to keep careful records and be honest when reporting your income. The SSA checks with the IRS to find out the amount you reported to them. If it’s more than what you reported to the SSA, you could lose out on any SSI payments for up to 36 months. And if you underreported your income to the IRS, it could mean a fine or jail.
If you do not qualify for SSI because your resources are above the threshold at this time, it would not be unusual for you to think about selling some items. But be aware that selling or disposing of items in an attempt to make yourself eligible for SSI can be tricky because they will take these actions into consideration.
To reduce your total resources (including cash)—to less than the limit of $2,000 per person or $3,000 per couple—you might sell things or give them away. However, unless it’s donated to a recognized charity, if you give away a resource (such as giving money to your children to hold for you) or sell an item for less than it’s worth just to become eligible for SSI, and the SSA learns of it, you might become ineligible for SSI for up to 36 months!
If you sell a resource for what it’s actually worth, the 36–month ineligibility period doesn’t apply …but the money you get from the sale could make you ineligible if it puts you over the SSI limit. To avoid such “I can’t win either way” concerns, some SSI applicants just toss out some assets they rarely or never use, claiming they’re no longer of any value to anyone.
You might consider transferring resources into a trust—a legal arrangement in which one party holds property for the benefit of another. A trust can hold cash, stocks or other liquid assets, and/or real estate or personal property that could, at a later date, be turned into cash. The SSA comments: “In some cases, we consider putting resources into a trust as a transfer of resources that makes you ineligible for SSI. In other cases, we count the trust itself as a resource. Moreover, the value of the trust could put you over the resource limit.” However, “We will not count the trust if counting it causes you undue hardship.” But, they add, “Some trusts and trust payments that we do not count as your resources or income for SSI purposes can affect your Medicaid eligibility.”
Visit https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/spotlights/spot-trusts.htm for clarification before transferring assets into a trust.
What SSI Provides for Children in Three Categories
1. Special Rules for Children of Military Personnel Living Overseas
Most people who receive SSI and leave the U.S. for 30 days or more are no longer eligible for SSI payments. However, there is a special rule for the children of military personnel. They may continue to get SSI benefits, or can apply for benefits while overseas, if they are U.S. citizens and are living with a parent who’s a member of the U.S. Armed Forces assigned to permanent duty ashore anywhere outside the United States.
If you’re such a parent and receive military orders to move overseas, and want your child(ren) to receive SSI benefits, contact your local Social Security office before you leave the U.S. and tell them:
- When you expect to report to your duty station overseas;
- When you expect your child(ren) to join you;
- Your mailing address at your new duty station; and
- Any details you can obtain about military allowances—e.g., housing allowances, rations allowances—at your new duty station.
Or, if you’re already overseas and think your child(ren) may be eligible for SSI benefits, contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Counselor Office, or write to:
Social Security Administration
Attn: SSI Military Children Overseas Coordinator
1 Frederick Street, Suite 100
Cumberland, Maryland 21502
Provide your current address, telephone number, and the Social Security number(s) of your child(ren). Later on, you should promptly report to the SSA any changes in the income, resources or address of a parent or child in your household. Also report it if any child who receives SSI moves, other people move into or out of your home, or you leave the Armed Forces and remain overseas.
2. SSI Benefits for Disabled or Blind Youth in Foster Care
If you are a disabled or blind youth about to be released from foster care because of your age —eligibility for foster care payments ends at age 18 in most states—you can apply for SSI payments. You must be able to show that:
- You live in a foster care situation;
- You are blind or disabled;
- You likely meet all of the non-medical eligibility requirements when foster care payments end; and
- You are within 90 days of losing foster care eligibility due to age.
3. SSI Benefits for Other Children with Disabilities
Your child, if younger than age 18, can receive monthly SSI payments if he or she meets Social Security’s definition of disability for children, and if his or her income and resources fall within the eligibility limits for your state. (The amount of the SSI payment is different from one state to another, because some states add to the SSI payment.) The SSA considers your child’s income and resources, as well as the income and resources of family members living in your child’s household. These rules apply if your child lives at home, or if he/she is away at school, but returns home from time to time and is subject to your control. If the income or resources of your child, or of family members living in the same household, exceed the amount allowed, the SSA will deny your SSI application. If your child lives in a medical facility where health insurance pays for his/her care, the monthly SSI payment is limited to $30.
To be eligible for SSI disability payments, your child must meet these requirements:
- The child must not be working and earning more than $1,130 a month (2016).
- Must have a physical or mental condition, or a combination of conditions, that result in marked and severe functional limitations.
- These condition(s) must have lasted, or be expected to last, at least 12 months, or are expected to result in death.
For more detailed information about SSI for children, go to https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-child-ussi.htm
If the SSA—via the Disability Determination Services (DDS) office in your state—agrees that your child is disabled, and the other requirements are met, immediate SSI payments may be made to your child. However, it could take three to five months for that decision to be made. That’s why, for some medical conditions, SSI payments are made right away (on request) and may continue for up to six months while the DDS investigates and considers the case.
These “fast track” conditions include: • HIV infection • Total blindness • Total deafness • Cerebral palsy • Down’s syndrome • Muscular dystrophy • Severe mental retardation (if the child is age 7 or older) • Birth weight below 2 lbs., 10 oz.
Once your child starts receiving SSI, the SSA must review his/her medical condition from time to time to verify that he/she is still disabled. This review must be done at least every three years for children younger than age 18 whose conditions are expected to improve. For babies who are getting SSI payments because of their low birth weight, the review must be done by age 1, unless their medical condition shows that improvement is not expected by their first birthday; if so, the review is scheduled for a later date. At each review, you must present evidence that your child is, and has been, receiving treatment that is considered medically necessary for his/her medical condition.
If your child is already receiving SSI payments, the SSA reviews his/her medical condition soon after he/she turns 18, using the adult disability rules to determine SSI eligibility. If your child was not eligible for SSI before his/her 18th birthday only because you and your spouse had too much income or resources, your disabled child may become eligible at age 18.
SSI Benefits May be Available to Certain Aliens
In addition to meeting all the other rules for SSI eligibility, including the limits on income and on resources, aliens may be (potentially) eligible for SSI if they meet these two requirements: 1) Be in a qualified alien category; 2) Meet a condition that allows qualified aliens to get SSI.
You are a qualified alien if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says you are in one of these seven categories:
- Lawfully Admitted for Permanent Residence (LAPR) in the U.S.
- Granted conditional entry as per the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)
- Paroled into the U.S. under Section 212(d)(5) of the INA for a period of at least one year
- Refugee admitted to the U.S. under Section 207 of the INA
- Granted asylum under Section 208 of the INA
- Deportation is being withheld under Section 243(h) of the INA, or removal is being withheld under Section 241(b)(3) of the INA
- “Cuban and Haitian entrant” as defined in the Refugee Education Assistance Act or in a status to be treated as a “Cuban/Haitian entrant” for SSI purposes.
OR you can be a “deemed qualified alien” if, under certain circumstances, you, your child or your parent has been subjected to battery or extreme cruelty by a family member while in the United States.
If you are in one of the above categories, you may be eligible for SSI if you also:
- Were receiving SSI and lawfully residing in the U.S. on August 22, 1996.
- Are LAPR with 40 qualifying quarters of work. Work done by your spouse or parent may also count toward the 40 quarters of work, but only for getting SSI. Quarters earned after December 31, 1996, cannot be counted if you, your spouse or a parent who worked received certain benefits from the U.S. government, based on limited income and resources during that time. However, if you entered the U.S. on or after August 22, 1996, you may not be eligible for SSI for the first five years as an LAPR even if you have 40 qualifying quarters.
- Are currently on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces or are an honorably discharged veteran and your discharge is not because you are an alien. This condition may also apply if you are the spouse, widow(er) or dependent child of certain U.S. military personnel.
- Were lawfully residing in the U.S. on August 22, 1996 and you are blind or disabled.
You may receive SSI for a maximum of seven years from the date that DHS granted you immigration status in one of certain categories.
Certain other categories of non–citizens may be eligible for SSI, too.
However, if you had a sponsor when you entered the U.S., the SSA will generally count his or her income and resources, and that of his or her spouse, as your income and resources and thereby probably hurt your chances for receiving SSI.
If you would like complete details on this topic, please visit the SSA website, https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/spotlights/spot-non-citizens.htm and read their Spotlight: SSI Benefits for Aliens.
Terms used in determining SSI eligibility or payments
Here (summarized) are official SSA definitions:
Aged: An individual who is 65 or older (and can prove it).
Disabled adult: An individual age 18 or older with a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in the inability to do any substantial gainful activity (SGA), and which can be expected to result in death or has lasted, or can be expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months.
Disabled child: An individual under age 18 with a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and which can be expected to result in death or has lasted, or can be expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months.
Blind adult or child: An individual with “statutory blindness”—central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye (if any) with use of a correcting lens or with visual field limitation in the better eye, such that the widest diameter of the visual field subtends (extends under) an angle no greater than 20 degrees.
Residency requirements: An individual must reside in any U.S. state, the District of Columbia, or the Northern Mariana Islands (e.g., Saipan), with the intent to continue living within the geographic limits OR who is a child living with a parent who is in the U.S. military service assigned to permanent duty ashore anywhere outside of the U.S. OR is a student temporarily abroad for the purpose of conducting studies as part of an educational program.
Resources: Cash or other assets that can be converted to cash and used for support. [Note: If you give away a resource or sell it for less than it’s worth, in order to reduce your resources below the SSI limit, you may become ineligible for SSI for up to 36 months.]
Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS): This allows individuals to use their income and/or personal property to reach a work goal—e.g., get specialized job training—without having it counted when determining income or resources.
Property Essential to Self-Support (PESS): Property not counted as income or resources, when determining SSI eligibility; e.g., tools or other equipment used for work, inventory needed for a business or trade, etc.
Earned Income Exclusion: Not counted as income is the first $65 of earnings received in a month plus 50% of the remaining earnings. Therefore, the SSA counts less than half of the month’s earnings when determining the SSI amount.
Student Earned Income Exclusion: Not counted as income is up to $1,780 of earned income per month, or up to a maximum of $7,180 a year for 2016, when the SSI monthly payment is determined for a student under age 22 and regularly attending school.
Ready to start your application for benefits? Read our second installment to Apply For SSI Disability