A Guide to SSI Disability Benefits

The federal government has two programs that provide cash payments to people who are disabled: Supplemental Security income (SSI) and Social Security disability (SSD), Even though they are both often referred to as “disability,” SSI and SSD are two different programs. SSD is for people who have a qualifying work history of paying taxes into the Social Security system for many years. SSI is for people with limited income and assets, who didn’t work enough to qualify for SSDI.

What Are the Medical Requirements for SSI?

To be eligible for SSI, your medical condition must be serious enough to prevent you from doing a substantial amount of work for at least 12 months (or be expected to result in your death).

Social Security defines what is a substantial amount of work through the concept of "substantial gainful activity" (SGA). For 2013, the SGA level is defined as earning $1,040 a month from working ($1,740 for legally blind folks). There are different rules for those who are self-employed.

If you are working above the SGA level when you apply, you don't meet the definition of disabled and so cannot get benefits.

What Are the Financial Limits for SSI?

In addition to being found disabled, you must meet Social Security's income and resource tests to receive SSI.

Income. In order to qualify for SSI benefits your countable income cannot exceed the federal benefit rate (FBR). The FBR for a single person in 2013 is $710. The FBR for couples is $1,066.

Your countable income includes money you are paid for working, the value of free food or shelter, and money from other sources such as your spouse, family, veterans benefits, or unemployment. (Only a portion of your spouse’s income, however, is attributed to you.)

There are also some types of income that the SSA doesn’t consider when determining your countable income. Here are some examples:

  • the first $20 of most types of income you get in a month
  • the first $65 of earnings and ½ of earnings over $65 in a month
  • income tax refunds
  • home energy assistance
  • loans you have to repay, and
  • grants, scholarships, or gifts of money used to pay for your education.

Resources. Individuals cannot have more than $2,000 in resources to be eligible for SSI. Couples cannot have more than $3,000 in combined resources (even if just one person is disabled). Resources are things you own like cash, investments, land, automobiles, or any other items you could sell to help pay for your food and shelter. There are some things, however, that the SSA won’t consider when calculating your income. Here are some examples:

  • your family home and the land it is on
  • one vehicle (if it is used by you or your family for transportation)
  • personal belongings (like your wedding ring and clothing)
  • household goods (furniture)
  • burial plots
  • an IRA or pension plan of a spouse who is not disabled, and
  • life insurance valued at less than $1,500.

Also, if you enroll in the Plan to Achieve Self Support (PASS) program, the SSA will let you save some of your PASS funds without it affecting your benefits.

How Much SSI Can I Get?

For the year 2013, the most in SSI payments you can receive from the federal government is $710 a month (this is the FBR rate discussed above), The maximum benefit amount (usually) changes every year to adjust to cost of living increases. Your SSI payments will be the difference between your countable income and the FBR. Here are some examples:

  • An SSI recipient lived with her daughter. Her daughter did not charge her for rent or food. The SSA determined that the monthly value of the room and board was $300 (this is called in-kind income). The SSI recipient had no other source of income. The first $20 of the in-kind income was not counted (this left $280.) The difference between the $280 and the FBR rate of $710 is $430, so that is the amount she will receive.
  • An SSI recipient earned $205 a month working part-time in a sheltered workshop for disabled people (this type of income is counted as earned income). The SSA did not count $20 from the $205, and $65 was next deducted from the balance ($185-$65=$120). The remaining amount was then divided by two ($120/2 = $60). The SSI recipient's countable income was $60, which was deducted from the FBR ($710) to determine his federal SSI payment of $650.

State Supplement

Most states provide a supplemental payment to SSI recipients. The amount of the supplement varies by state, and can be anywhere from $10 to $800. Many states, however, only pay supplements to those living in some kind of adult care home or nursing home. In some states, if you are eligible for your state’s SSI supplement, it will be added to your SSI payment, but in others, you have to apply for the supplement separately.

Can I Work if I Get SSI?

As discussed above, if you are working at the SGA level when you apply for benefits, you will be denied. However, once you have received SSI for a month, you can work above the SGA level and still keep your benefits. You will always be subject to the SSI income limit, however. As a result, the most you can earn from work (as long as you have no unearned income) before your SSI payments will stop completely is $1,505. This is because of the money that the SSA excludes from your countable income. Here is how we arrived at the figure of $1,505.

  • $1,505 - $20 exclusion =$1,485
  • $1,485 - $65 exclusion =$1,420
  • $1,420 / 2 = $710 in countable income
  • $710 (FBR) - $710 (countable income) = $0.00 payment

If your state pays a supplement, however, you can earn more than $1,505 before your SSI payments will stop.

If your SSI payments do cease because of your earnings, you may be able to get them restarted without a new application if you contact the SSA within 12 months of when the payments ended.

Can I Automatically Get Medicaid if I am Approved for SSI?

Whether or not you automatically qualify for Medicaid depends on the type of agreement your state has with the federal government. Most states automatically provide Medicaid to SSI recipients; however, a few states require SSI recipients to meet additional criteria in order to receive Medicaid. You should contact your local social services department for more information.

How Do I Apply for SSI?

You can apply for SSI either in person at your local field office or on the telephone. You can find your field office on the SSA’s website. To apply by phone, call 800-772-1213.

Do I Need an Attorney to Get Disability?

The law doesn’t require you to have an attorney to apply for disability benefits. However, statistics show that represented applicants are more likely to be approved for benefits. If you want to talk to an experienced disability attorney about your case or to learn more about SSI, sign up for a free consultation here.

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