SSI Eligibility Rules
Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is a monthly benefit program that assists older and/or disabled people who have limited income and resources through cash payments. SSI is a federal program managed by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and paid for by general funds from the U.S. Treasury, not Social Security taxes.
SSI is different from Social Security Disability in that it’s available to people without work credits, meaning individuals who have never worked or haven’t worked in a long time are eligible. It is also available for children who are blind or disabled.
Created in 1974 as part of the Social Security Act, SSI is a replacement for federal-state assistance programs serving a similar purpose. SSI was created to standardize eligibility requirements and benefit payments. Roughly 8 million Americans benefit from SSI each year. The purpose is to maintain a minimum level of income for those who are older, blind or disabled and have limited income.
Since SSI is administered on the federal level, the application and service processes are very similar across every state. Some states supplement the federal benefit payment amount, yielding higher monthly payments for some individuals depending on which state you live in. To receive the benefit, you may need to fill out an additional state application.
Supplemental Security Income is available to individuals who meet the following eligibility requirements:
- 65 or older OR blind OR disabled
- U.S. citizen or legal resident
- Meets income and resource limits
- Applies for any other available cash benefits, including Social Security
Most residents who live in a public institution such as a city or county rest home, halfway house, jail or prison are not usually eligible for SSI, except for in the following situations:
- You live in a public community home with 16 residents or less
- You live in a public institution mainly to receive approved education or job training
- You live in a public emergency homeless shelter
- You live in an institution where Medicaid is paying over half the cost
There is no minimum age requirement for receiving SSI. Parents are encouraged to apply on behalf of their children if household income is low.
The SSA defines blindness as having 20/200 vision or worse in your better eye with the use of a correcting lens or having a visual field limitation of no greater than a 20-degree angle in your better eye with the use of a correcting lens. Individuals who do not meet the SSA’s specific definition of blindness may still be eligible for SSI if their visual impairment meets the definition of a disability outlined below.
SSI is a long-term disability program, meaning to be eligible the disability must have lasted or be expected to last for at least one year and be serious enough to keep a person from substantial and gainful activity (SGA) or the ability to earn a certain level of income. This does not mean a disabled person cannot work, but rather means they are limited in how much they can work or the type of work they can perform because of their disability.
For children under 18, the definition is slightly different, though the condition must also have lasted or be expected to last for at least one year. Children are considered disabled if they have a medically diagnosed mental or physical impairment that results in extreme function limitations or is expected to cause death.
Income and Resource Limits
The SSI income limit is equal to the federal benefit rate, or FBR. In 2016, the amount is $733 for individuals and $1,100 for couples per month. Counted income (see exceptions below) must fall below this amount in order for an individual to be eligible.
If you are married or a child, part of your spouse or parent’s income will likely be deemed as available to you and considered as counted income when determining eligibility.
The resource limit is $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples.
When calculating SSI eligibility Income includes all money received from:
- Wages – including overtime and bonuses
- Earnings from Self-Employment (net)
- Social Security Benefits
- State Disability Payments
- Unemployment Compensation
- Workers’ Compensation
- Federal, State or Local Help Based on Need
- Temporary Help for Needy Families
- Veterans Benefits
- Military Allowance and Pay
- Military Pension
- Refugee Cash Help
- General Help
- Bureau of Indian Affairs Income
- Disaster Relief
- Office of Personnel Management Benefits
- Private Pension
- Railroad Retirement Benefits
- Foreign Pension
- Black Lung Benefits
- Civil Service Benefits
- Lease/Rental Income
- Lottery/Gambling Winnings/Prizes
- Insurance or Annuity Payments
- Interest or Dividends
- Child Support
- Settlements and Awards, including Court-Ordered Awards
- Proceeds of a Life Insurance Policy
- Inheritance of Cash or Property
- Strike Pay or Other Union Benefits
- Free food or housing
- If someone helps pay for food, utilities, rent, or mortgage
- Any other income or help not mentioned
When calculating your income, the SSA does not include:
- First $20 received per month
- First $65 earned from working and
- 50% earned from working over $65
- Benefits received from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps)
- Shelter received from private nonprofits
- Home energy assistance
Certain other situations also affect how income is calculated:
- If you are married, a portion of your spouse’s income will be counted
- If you are under 18, a portion of your parent or guardian’s income will be counted
- If you are a student, a portion of wages or scholarships received may not be counted
- If you are disabled or blind and working, wages used toward things that help you work (e.g. wheelchair, transportation, etc.) will not be counted
Resources are personal assets, or things you own, including cash, bank accounts, property, stocks and bonds. Individuals who have under $2,000 in resources and couples with under $3,000 in resources are eligible for SSI.
When calculating your income the SSA does not include:
- Property where you live
- Life insurance policies under $1,500
- Burial plots for immediate family and yourself
- $1,500 or less each in burial funds for you and your spouse
If you meet income and resource limits, the most influential factor affecting approval of your application becomes your medical records. The SSA will contact doctors and caregivers to get a complete view of your medical history to determine if you are in fact disabled. For this reason, it’s important to see doctors on a regular basis and be honest about your condition so it can be properly documented.
To apply for Supplemental Security Income, call 1-800-772-1213 or TDD 1-800-325-0078 to schedule an appointment with a local Social Security representative. The application filled out in an interview-like setting. You will meet with your representative who will ask you a variety of questions and fill out the application based on your conversation. For this reason, the SSI application is not available online.
When applying, you will need the following things available:
- Proof of citizenship or legal residency
- Social Security card
- Birth certificate
- Mortgage or lease and landlord’s contact information
- Work history
- Pay stubs, bank statements, insurance policies, burial fund statements and any other records of income and resources
- Checkbook or other documentation showing all bank account and loan numbers
- If you are blind or disabled, name, address and telephone number for any doctors, hospitals and clinics you’ve visited
If you think you’re eligible for SSI benefits, you should apply as soon as possible. The day you contact your Social Security office will be used as your filing date, getting you benefit payments as soon as possible, but no earlier than the 1st of the month following your filing date.
Most applications take 90 to 120 days to be processed and can sometimes take as a long as two years. Though part of the reason for this wait is because the SSA has to coordinate with doctors and other medical professionals to determine your eligibility, the most influential factor is the huge backlog of claims waiting to be processed, leading to long wait times for everyone.
You may take comfort in knowing that If your application is accepted you will likely receive back pay dating back to the month after the date you applied. You cannot receive payments for time before your application was filed, even if you were disabled during that time. Back pay is most often paid in a lump sum.
Compassionate Allowances (CAL) initiative
The CAL initiative allows local Social Security offices to quickly approve SSI applications for individuals whose serious medical conditions clearly meet eligibility standards. Through CAL, the SSA gives priority service to individuals who have an obvious disability based on medical information that can be received very quickly. There are currently 200 medical conditions that fall under CAL.
Many people who apply for SSI benefits do not receive them. The national SSI application approval rate is just over 30%. The success rate for appeal is about 15%. Reasons for this low acceptance rate usually fall into two categories: not meeting income limits or not being deemed as disabled. Since the SSA includes such a wide range of income sources, even down to in-kind help from friends and family, individuals often find their income according to these standards is higher than expected. In regards to disability, the SSA’s strict definition of disability deems many medical conditions to be outside the scope of eligibility, even if an individual thinks they are disabled.
Your local Social Security agent can help you determine your benefit payment. In 2016, the SSI benefit payment set by the Federal government was $733 for individuals and $1,100 for couples. Any counted income you receive will be subtracted from the FBR to determine your benefit payment.
Most states supplement these payments, making them higher. The following states do not supplement the federal benefit rate: Arizona, Mississippi, North Dakota and West Virginia. The rate is adjusted year to year and may be affected by your marital status, living situation, age, and more depending on where you live. The state supplemental payment ranges from $10 to $200.
In California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, and Vermont the SSA administers the supplemental payment directly, so you do not need to complete an additional application to receive these benefits. All other states administer their own supplemental benefits program and you will need to file a separate application with the state agency in order to receive these benefits.
Benefits are paid once a month, usually on the 1st of the month. All SSI payments are made electronically via direct deposit, an Electronic Transfer Account or the Direct Express® card program. More information on these options is available at GoDirect.org.
Changes in income should be reported as soon as they happen and cannot be reported any later than the 10th of the month after the change happens. For example, if you begin a new job on March 30, you should report it immediately and no later than April 10.
To report income changes, call your local Social Security agent, 1-800-772-1213 or TYY 1-800-325-0778.
Receiving Social Security Income can affect your eligibility for other assistance programs. Your SSI application may even serve as your application for other programs. Though the effect SSI has on these benefits may seem complicated, your Social Security agent is available to assist you in finding the easiest way to maximize benefits and minimize the work associated with applying for these programs.
Social Security Disability (SSD)
Some individuals who are eligible for Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits, may be eligible for SSI. This happens when the SSD payments are especially low, allowing a person to still meet income requirements under SSI. SSI payments will only be high enough to reach the federal benefit rate when combined with your SSD payments.
Medicaid and Medicare
In most states, individuals receiving SSI benefits are automatically eligible for Medicaid. Your SSI applications may even serve as your application for Medicaid, cutting out time and extra paperwork. In other states, you may need to fill out a separate application to receive Medicaid benefits. If you live in a state where the application is done separately, your Social Security agent can guide you to where to apply.
Just as Medicaid is closely linked to SSI, Medicare is closely linked to Social Security benefits. Individuals receiving both SSI and social security are therefore eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare. People with both SSI and Medicare coverage do not need to fill out an application to be eligible for Extra Help with Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
Most individuals who qualify for SSI also qualify for the SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. The SSA works closely with agencies who administer SNAP and can help connect you to these benefits, supplying SNAP information and often an application form. SSI recipients in California are not eligible for SNAP because the supplemental SSI payment paid by the state covers these expenses.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
For households receiving TANF, SSI benefits are only paid to the family member who is 65 or older, blind or disabled.
State or Local Need-Based Benefits
Many states offer benefits for the aged, disabled and blind through programs funded by the state welfare department. If you receive these benefits, you may also be required to apply for SSI. If you apply and your SSI application is approved, you will likely stop receiving the state or local payments since SSI payments now cover those benefits.
The Social Security Administration puts high priority on individuals who receive Supplemental Security Income benefits getting jobs. Working promotes independence and purpose, while contributing positively to the overall wellness of an individual. SSI recipients may hesitate to look for work in fear of losing their SSI benefits, but SSI work incentives are available to protect you from losing SSI and Medicaid benefits when you start working. Incentives range from not counting portions of income when determining eligibility to allowing individuals to continue receiving Medicaid without receiving SSI.
Because of these incentives, in 2016, most individuals can earn around $1,500 and still receive SSI benefits. This is because the SSA does not count the first $85 earned and only counts half of the income earned after that when determining eligibility. So, under this formula, a person making $1,500 a month would have a counted income around $710, which falls under the income limit for SSI eligibility.
If you are an individual desiring to work, do not let the fear of losing benefits discourage you. Talk with your Social Security agent to determine how your benefits will be affected.
Social Security Income is a pointed program designed to serve aged, blind and disabled people with very low income and resources. Eligibility standards are extremely strict and it is important to provide clear and complete information to prove your eligibility for the program.
A Social Security agent from your local office will guide you through the application process. Being familiar with the program and process will help you know the right questions to ask and be prepared for what your agent will expect from you. If you believe you are eligible, you should apply for SSI as soon as possible since application wait times can be long.