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SSI 101: An Overview


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Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a Social Security program that provides an income for people who have limited income and assets who are "disabled" as defined in the law. (SSI is also for people who are aged or blind.) The word "welfare" is sometimes associated with SSI. However, the reality is that you have been paying for this benefit with your taxes. As you will see, you do not have to be broke to qualify for SSI.

In fact, you may qualify for SSI even if you have a home and a car because these assets and others are not considered when determining whether you are eligible for SSI. On the other hand, you will not qualify if you live with a spouse who makes a substantial income or has substantial  non-exempt assets.

Your work history is not considered for this program.

In many states, the states pay a supplement from state revenues.

SSI benefits are not subject to income tax.

Applying for SSI benefits involves a lot of paperwork but it is not an impossible task. Contrary to prevailing gossip on the street, not everyone is turned down for SSI during their first application. If the initial denial rate is high, it is because people haven't planned ahead and don't carefully complete the paperwork or they aren't disabled according to Social Security's definition of the term. If you are sufficiently disabled and spend some time carefully completing the forms, you should have no trouble being approved for benefits.

People who receive SSI usually also receive Medicaid. There may be other benefits as well.

You can receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits as well as SSI. When a person applies for SSDI, Social Security is supposed to check to see if the person also qualifies for SSI. (To learn more, see: SSDI and SSDI Compared To SSI.)

People Who Are Eligible For SSI

To be eligible for SSI, you must fit into one of the following categories:

  • Disabled
  • Blind
  • Over age 65
  • Lives in a private or public institution

You must also live in the United States or other described territory and be a U.S. citizen or fit within specified categories.

Eligibility Requirements

The idea behind Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is to provide an income to people who are "disabled", blind, over age 65 or who live in a public institution who are supposed to be broke. As you will see, people don't have to actually be broke.

To qualify as "disabled", it is only necessary to have a health condition which fits within Social Security's definition of disabled.

With respect to income, basically you cannot be eligible for SSI in any month in which your "countable" income exceeds the amount of the SSI benefit you would receive. At least one half of earned income isn't counted for purposes of determining income for eligibility purposes.

There are also special rules about what resources are counted and which resources are not counted. For example, the value of your residence, no matter how much it's worth, isn't counted. There are also "deemed" resources, such as assets owned by a spouse with whom you live.

It is possible to transfer assets to qualify for SSI, though a transfer could subject you to a penalty.

You can receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits as well as SSI.

Applying For SSI

Apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) as soon as possible. Social Security does not make SSI payments for any period prior to the date of your first contact with Social Security.

Start the process in at your local Social Security office by calling for an appointment.

Take with you all the documentation needed to show you are eligible for SSI. It is advisable not to postpone the appointment until you have everything together. Social Security will help you pull together whatever you're missing.

When you apply for either SSI or Supplemental Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the Social Security interviewer is supposed to check to see whether you also qualify for the other program. For most people, the medical requirements and process to qualify are the same under both programs.

As an SSI applicant, you must also apply for any other benefits to which you may be entitled. If you're not aware of other benefits, ask the Social Security interviewer about them.

In some states, an SSI eligible person is automatically entitled to Medicaid. Other states are more restrictive and impose additional requirements on Medicaid eligibility.

If you are eligible for SSI because of your health condition (a disability), there are five questions an evaluator will ask in the following order:

  1. Are you working?
  2. Is there a medical problem which impacts your ability to work to any degree?
  3. Is your medical condition found in the list of disabling impairments?
  4. Can you do the work you did previously?
  5. Is there another type of work that you can do?

If you are eligible because of blindness, there are special rules.

You can use a representative (a layperson such as a family member or a paid professional) to apply for SSI for you. (To learn more, see: Hiring A Representative To Help Complete The Forms.)

If you are unable to manage your own benefits, you may appoint a Representative Payee to receive benefits on your behalf. To learn more, see: Representative Payee.

If your application is denied, you will have the right to appeal. Your notice from Social Security will let you know whether your first level of appeal is Reconsideration or an Adminstrative Law Judge.

A few tips:

  • Resist the temptation to underreport your income and/or resources. To learn more, see: Don't Under Report Your Income And Resources
  • Keep a log of your application process. Include names, phone numbers, dates of contact and the substance of what happened during each contact. The log will come in handy if you have to appeal an adverse decision.
  • If you need money right away, you may be able to obtain an advance on SSI benefits. See Money In A Hurry.
  • Be forewarned about scams. Watch for people who may call saying they are from Social Security and asking for personal identification or bank account information. The best approach is not to give out this information or your Social Security number unless you initiate the call.
  • Look at The Time Table For An SSI Application.
  • Look at Overall Tips To Keep In Mind When Applying For SSDI and/or SSI.

While Receiving SSI Benefits

The SSI benefit you will receive is the difference between what you earn and the total of federal and state SSI benefits.

If you receive an overpayment, expect to have to pay it back. It is preferable to report the overpayment. You can ask waiver of repayment, and/or a period of time over which to pay it back.

Changes must be reported to Social Security on a timely basis - or you can incur penalties. Keep in mind that Social Security learns about reportable information on its own by computer cross-matching with any or all federal, state or local agencies and with financial institutions.

SSI encourages a return to work. A return to work must be reported.

In order to determine whether you continue to qualify for SSI, Social Security will periodically conduct reviews.

Since SSI is a needs based benefit, Social Security assumes each monthly payment is needed as soon as it can be generated and sent. Therefore, SSI recipients receive a monthly check on the first of each month.

If the first of the month is on a Sunday, you will receive your SSI check on the last working day before the first of the month – usually a Friday.

It is possible to get an advance on next month's Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment for urgent needs.

If you don't want to handle the SSI benefit, you can appoint a Representative Payee to do it for you.

For More information, see: 

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