The Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) is a specially designed program to assist individuals who, due to disabling health issues or advanced age, aren’t able to support themselves and are in need of income assistance. Approximately 1% of the population (3.3 million in 2011) receives benefits from SSI, a need-based benefit plan run by Social Security. However, the maximum monthly payment for SSI is generally very low – $710 per month or less for individuals, or $1,066 for couples.
SSI is often confused with the Social Security Disability program, since both provide support to disabled Americans who need financial assistance.
Unlike the Disability program, 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 the age of 65 can apply, and in certain circumstances, low-income couples over the age of 65 can also apply.
It’s important to note that individuals receiving Social Security benefits or Disability aren’t automatically prevented from receiving SSI. In cases where Social Security or Disability payments are less than $710, a person who is blind, disabled, or elderly 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 be blind, disabled, or over the age of 65 to qualify.
If you are applying for SSI because you are blind, 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 is disabling in nature
An individual younger than 18 is considered disabled if he or she has 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. Under these circumstances, a minor could qualify for SSI.
An individual over the age of 18 is considered disabled if he or she has 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 $1,040 per month.
Individuals Over 65
Individuals over the age of 65 are not required to have a disability, but they must be low income, earning less than $710 per month.
Criteria for Eligibility
In addition to meeting specific health requirements, applicants for SSI must demonstrate financial, resident, and citizenship status. The following criteria must be met:
- Citizenship. You must be a U.S. citizen or a qualified legal alien.
- Residency. You must be a resident of the United States or the Northern Mariana Islands (with the intent of maintaining that 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. SSI applicants cannot have an income greater than $710 per month when applying as an individual or more than $1,066 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. For more information about resources, visit the SSI website.
- 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 prisoners or individuals 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 and accurate SSI application. One of the primary reasons SSI applicants are rejected is because their applications are incomplete or fail to provide sufficient documentation. It’s also important to note that SSI has the ability to verify bank balances, medical records, and work history, so lying on your application is a surefire way to get 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 (Non-employment Income). Non-employment 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 a blind applicant 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, and/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 must schedule an appointment at Social Security to apply for SSI. Unlike Social Security Disability, you cannot apply online. To make an appointment to file your claim, call 1-800-772-1213. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, call Social Security via TTY at 1-800-325-0778 or via the telecommunications relay services (TRS) assisted number at 1-800-772-1213.
You may apply for benefits at any time, but SSI recommends you apply as soon as assistance is needed, as 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 Initiativ (CAI), 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 CAI 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.
- Deemed Income. Income of any individual you live with who has not applied for SSI and whose income you benefit from.
Certain income is not included, such as:
- The first $20 of your gross monthly income
- The first $65 of your countable income (income once exclusions are subtracted) plus one half of the remainder
- Food stamps
- 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. While fairly small, these benefits can add to the total amount you receive. The only states and territories that don’t offer state-sponsored SSI are Arizona, North Dakota, Mississippi, West Virginia, and 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:
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New York
- Rhode Island
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.
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 letter of rejection. You have 60 days from this date to submit an appeal. Be prompt. Late appeals will likely be rejected.
- Read Your Denial 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 Social Security to get more information.
- Request Your SSI File. If you feel 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. 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 their 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.
There are other federal and state assistance programs SSI enrollees may be eligible for. These programs include Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), 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.
Do you think the income limits for the SSI program are adequate? Are the requirements too strict?