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What Is Supplemental Security Income – Benefits & How to Apply

The Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) is a need-based program run by the U.S. Social Security Administration. It assists individuals who, due to disabling health issues or advanced age, earn a limited income and are in need of income assistance.

Approximately 1.6% of the population — 5.3 million people — received monthly benefits from SSI in December 2020, according to Social Security Administration stats. The monthly SSI benefit changes each year. As of January 2020, it’s $783 for an individual and $1,175 for a couple. Some states supplement that amount, so beneficiaries in those states could receive higher benefits.

SSI is often confused with the Social Security Disability Insurance program (SSDI) because both provide support to Americans with disabilities who need financial assistance.

Unlike the SSDI program, SSI applicants don’t have to prove they’ve worked long enough or recently enough to qualify for benefits. And coverage isn’t limited to individuals with disabilities — qualifying U.S. residents over age 65 can apply, and in certain circumstances, low-income couples over age 65 also can apply.

It’s important to note that individuals receiving Social Security or SSDI benefits aren’t automatically prevented from receiving SSI. In cases where Social Security or Disability payments are less than the federal maximum amount, a person who is living with blindness or a disability or who is over age 65 might be qualified to receive SSI as well.

Who Can Apply for SSI?

SSI is designed to assist individuals whose income has been restricted by health status or age, so you must have a disability or blindness or be over age 65 to qualify.

Individuals with Blindness

To qualify for SSI on the basis of blindness, you must have one of the following conditions:

  • Central visual acuity less than 20/200 in your best eye with the use of corrective lenses.
  • Field limitation in your best eye, with the widest diameter of the visual field less than 20 degrees.
  • Another allowable criteria for blindness that may qualify you on the basis of disability.

Minors With Disabilities

An individual younger than 18 may qualify for SSI on the basis of disability if they have a medically established physical or mental impairment, including an emotional or learning difficulty, that results in significant functional limitations expected to either result in death or last a minimum of one year.

Adults With Disabilities

An individual over age 18 may qualify for SSI on the basis of disability if they have both of the following:

  • A medically established physical or mental impairment that prevents substantial gainful activity.
  • A physical or mental impairment that will result in death or will last for a minimum of one year.

Substantial gainful activity doesn’t need to be full-time employment. It’s generally defined as work done for pay or profit resulting in income greater than $1,175 per month.

Individuals Over 65

Individuals over age 65 are not required to have a disability or blindness, but they must have a limited income, earning less than $783 per month in what the program considers countable income, including earned income, benefits from other programs, or investment dividends.


Criteria for Eligibility

In addition to meeting specific health requirements, applicants for SSI must demonstrate financial, residency, and citizenship status. The following criteria must be met:

  • Citizenship. You must be a U.S. citizen or a qualified non-citizen.
  • Residency. You must be a resident of a U.S. state, Washington, D.C., or the Northern Mariana Islands with the intent of maintaining residency. In some cases, a student studying abroad or the child of a parent assigned to permanent military duty outside the U.S. may also qualify.
  • Income. As of January 2020, SSI applicants cannot have an income greater than $786 per month when applying as an individual or more than $1,175 per month when applying as a couple.
  • Resources. Individual applicants cannot have more than $2,000 in financial resources, and couples cannot have more than $3,000 in financial resources in order to qualify. Resources include savings and any asset that could be sold or converted to cover monthly expenses, with certain exclusions including one car used for work, your personal residence, and burial funds. Examples of countable resources include a second car, a second residence, and life insurance policies. If your resources exceed the government’s limit, you may be expected to sell them and use the funds to cover monthly expenses before qualifying for benefits. Take caution not to give away resources that you could otherwise sell. Doing so can disqualify you from SSI.
  • Legal Status. Applicants must have legal status in the U.S. and must not have violated any conditions of parole. Fugitives cannot apply for SSI, nor can individuals in prisons or living in halfway houses.
  • Domicile. When applying, you must provide proof of where you live. Individuals living in federal or state institutions usually cannot receive benefits, although exceptions may be made for federal or state-run emergency facilities, such as a shelter.

Keep in mind that some state and federal programs may affect SSI benefits. Check with your state office to determine whether receiving certain state-administered benefits, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), could affect SSI eligibility.


What You Need to Apply

First and foremost, you need a complete an accurate SSI application. One of the primary reasons SSI applicants are rejected is because their applications are incomplete or they fail to provide sufficient documentation.

The SSA has the ability to verify bank balances, medical records, and work history, and inaccurate applications will be rejected.

In addition to your application, you need to bring the following materials to your SSI eligibility appointment:

  • Social Security Card.
  • Proof of Age. Birth certificates, baptismal certificates, and drivers licenses are a few of the acceptable documents.
  • Proof of Citizenship or Legal Alien Status. Documents demonstrating U.S. citizenship include birth certificates, religious records showing your legal status, U.S. passports, or naturalization papers. Documents demonstrating legal alien status include I-94s, Permanent Resident Cards, or U.S. military discharge papers if you served in the U.S. military.
  • Proof of Earned Income. To demonstrate earnings, bring payroll stubs or — if you are self-employed — last year’s tax return.
  • Proof of Unearned Income. Unearned income includes cash from friends or family, disability payments, or interest income. Bank statements, receipts, and pension statements all document these types of earnings.
  • Work Incentives Expenses. The SSI program encourages applicants to work when possible, offering several “work incentives” to help enrollees maintain employment. For example, the money used to secure a guide dog necessary for an applicant with blindness may not count toward the applicant’s total income. If you have qualifying expenses, you must bring receipts or other documentation to support them. See SSI’s Work Incentives Program page to learn more.
  • Proof of Resources. Supply your reviewer with bank statements, real estate deeds, life insurance policies, burial plot contracts, financial certificates, vehicle titles, and any other documents that show proof of financial resources.
  • Proof of Living Arrangements. Proof of living arrangements include leases, deeds, or rental receipts. The proof provided should include names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers for all individuals living at the residence. You should also provide an itemized list of all expenses paid, such as utilities and food.
  • Medical Records. Bring copies of all medical records documenting your disability status. Be as thorough as possible; insufficient documentation can delay your approval or lead to a rejection of benefits. In most cases, the person making the final decision is not the person you meet with, so don’t rely on verbal communication to support your claim.
  • Documentation Showing 15 Years Work History (If Applicable). Provide documents detailing past employers, positions held, rate of pay, hours worked, and a description of your duties up until the date of your medical diagnosis.
  • Documents Substantiating the Disability of a Child Applicant. If you’re applying on behalf of a child, you’ll need to provide contact information for teachers, caregivers, or medical personnel who can describe the child’s disability. A copy of the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is also helpful.

How to Apply for SSI

You can apply for SSI benefits online or schedule an appointment with the Social Security Administration to apply for SSI.

To make an appointment to file your claim, call 1-800-772-1213 (unassisted or TRS calls) or TTY 1-800-325-0778.

You can also visit your local Social Security office without an appointment, but expect a longer wait time.

You may apply for benefits at any time, but the SSA recommends you apply as soon as you need assistance because it can take three months or longer to process an application. If your application is accepted, you’ll receive benefits retroactively from the date of your application.

Under a provision called the Compassionate Allowances initiative (CAL), certain medical diagnoses qualify for immediate approval. These circumstances usually involve serious or terminal illnesses, such as acute leukemia or adult onset Huntington Disease. Applications qualifying under CAL will be fast-tracked.


How SSI Determines Benefits

If your savings and assets (“resources”) are less than $2,000 — or $3,000 for a couple — SSI examines the following criteria to determine your benefit:

  • Earned Income. Common earned income items include wages, self-employed income, and royalties.
  • Unearned Income. Social Security benefits, disability benefits, and unemployment benefits are all examples of unearned income.
  • In-Kind Income. Any food or shelter you receive for less than fair-market value is counted as in-kind income.
  • Deemed Income. If you live with any individual who has not applied for SSI — such as a spouse or parent — the part of their income that you benefit from is deemed income.

Certain income is not included, such as:

  • The first $20 of your gross monthly income.
  • The first $65 of your countable income (less exclusions), plus half of the remainder of your countable income.
  • SNAP benefits.
  • Any food or shelter assistance you receive from nonprofit agencies based on need.
  • Payments you make toward loans.
  • Educational grants, tuition, fellowships, or gifts.
  • Money spent by someone else to cover your utilities.

State-Funded SSI Benefits

Most states provide state-funded SSI benefits, which can add to the total amount you receive. State-sponsored SSI is offered everywhere in the U.S. except North Dakota, Mississippi, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., the Northern Mariana Islands.

Certain states administer their supplemental security programs through the federal Social Security office. When applying for federal benefits in the following states, you can also ask about state programs:

  • California
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Iowa
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Utah
  • Vermont

The remaining 34 states administer their own state supplement programs. Each state has its own rules and its own application procedure. The Social Security representative who receives your federal SSI application can tell you where to submit an application for your state-administered program.


What to Do if Your SSI Application Is Denied

If your application is denied, you have 60 days to appeal the decision. The appeal process is free and worth the time if you feel you’ve been unjustly rejected.

To start the appeal process:

  • Look for the Date of Mailing. Note the date on your initial determination letter. You have 60 days from this date to submit an appeal. Be prompt. Late appeals will likely be rejected.
  • Read Your Determination Letter Carefully. You need to understand why you were denied to formulate a proper appeal.
  • Look Specifically for the Technical Rationale. Look for the reviewer’s technical rationale for denying your application. Take notes, and if you don’t understand the rationale, call your Social Security office to get more information.
  • Request Your SSI File. If the explanation of denial still isn’t clear, request to see your SSI file. Make sure it contains copies of all your medical records.
  • Appeal. Don’t wait to appeal the decision. Notify SSI as soon as possible by calling 1-800-772-1213 to declare your intent to appeal. You must appeal in writing by filling out the Disability Report – Appeals, or SSA-561-U2. You can do this online or you can print the PDF form, returning it to your local Social Security office.
  • Be Thorough. Thoroughly explain any circumstances you feel SSI did not consider when making its decision. Include any documents that were not in your file or were not initially considered.
  • Seek Assistance If Needed. Ask family members or friends to assist you if you feel you need support to file your appeal. Some states have lawyer referral services that offer reduced-cost consultations, providing you the opportunity to ask questions and have your appeal reviewed. Call your state bar to ask about these services.

Final Word

SSI enrollees may be eligible for other federal and state assistance programs as well.

These programs include Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and state-directed medical insurance programs for children. Many of these federally funded programs are state-administered, so qualifications and income requirements vary. Contact your state Health and Welfare office or the equivalent state agency to find out about these programs.

Dana Sitar
Dana Sitar has been writing and editing since 2011, covering personal finance, careers and digital media. Say hi and follow her on Twitter @danasitar.

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