What is Supplemental Security Income (SSI)?

SSI is a type of Social Security benefit that allows disabled individuals to collect a monthly payment, even if they haven't paid into the system through taxes.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a federal program administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) that pays monthly benefits to you if have a limited income, limited assets, and are disabled, blind, or age 65 or older. SSA has very specific criteria that you must meet in order to be eligible for SSI benefits. This article focuses on SSI for disabled and blind applicants.

Income and Resource Limits

SSI is for people who have limited income and resources, and there are specific limits on your resources and income that you have to fall under in order to be eligible for SSI benefits.

Asset Limit

Resources, or assets, are cash and things that you own that can be sold for cash. Common resources you may have include cash, money in bank accounts, stocks, land, personal property, and vehicles. If you are single, you can have only $2,000 worth of resources to be eligible for SSI benefits. If you are married, you can have only $3,000 worth of resources.

SSA understands that you need some resources in order to live day to day, and so not all resources are counted. The $2,000 and $3,000 limits mentioned above are only for “counted resources.” There are many resources that the SSA does not count for purposes of determining your eligibility for SSI. The most common uncounted resources include: the house you live in and the land it is on; household goods and personal possessions, such as furniture and wedding rings; and one vehicle, as long as you or someone in your house uses it for transportation.

Income Limit

There are also limits on how much money you can make in order to be eligible for SSI benefits. Like resources, not all income and payments that you receive are counted for SSI purposes. Income that is counted includes: money you make from work; money you get from other sources, like Social Security benefits, workers' compensation, unemployment benefits, pensions, and money from friends or relatives. In addition, food or shelter you get for free -- or for less than what it is worth -- is counted toward your income.

Some common examples of payments that SSA does not count for determining your eligibility for SSI benefits include: the first $20 of most kinds of income you get in a month, $65 of money you earn through working plus half of the remainder of the money you earn through working, the value of any food stamps you receive, income tax refunds, and the value of food or shelter you receive that is based on need and is provided by a nonprofit agency.

(For more detail, see SSI Disability Eligibility: Income Limits.)

Medical Eligibility Requirements

If you are applying for SSI benefits because you are blind or disabled, you must meet additional eligibility requirements along with the income and resource limits discussed above. SSA has very specific definitions of "blindness" and "disability," so it is important to understand what you need to show in order to be eligible for SSI benefits. SSI benefits are available only to those with a total disability. If you are partially disabled or have a short-term disability, you will not be eligible for SSI benefits.

Blindness

In order to automatically qualify as "blind" for purposes of SSI benefits, you must either have a central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the best correction (eyeglasses or contacts) or have a specifically defined limitation in the field of vision of your better eye. Your eye doctor should be able to tell you what your specific visual limitations are.

If you do not meet the requirements for legal blindness, but you do have a visual impairment, you might still be eligible for SSI benefits on the basis of not being able to function well enough to work. 

Disability

The three requirements you must meet in order to be found "disabled" for the purposes of receiving SSI benefits are:

  • You cannot do work that you used to do.
  • Your medical condition prevents you from doing other types of work, and
  • Your impairments have lasted or are expected to last for at least one year.

Your condition must be "severe." SSA defines a severe condition as one that interferes with basic work-related activities. SSA has a list of medical conditions that are so severe they automatically qualify you as disabled. If your condition is not on that list, SSA will see if your condition is equal in severity to one of the conditions on the list or if it reduces your ability to function so much that you cannot be expected to work.

Other Eligibility Requirements

Along with the financial and medical eligibility requirements discussed, there are a few other eligibility requirements to be aware of. In order to receive SSI benefits, you must be a U.S. citizen or national or fall under a certain category of noncitizen aliens. You must not be out of the U.S. for more than 30 consecutive days, or a full calendar month. In addition, you must apply for and use any other cash benefits that you are eligible for.

Application Process

You can apply for SSI by calling 1-800-772-1213 (or TTY 1-800-325-0778 if you are deaf or hard of hearing) and making an appointment. You can make an appointment to apply on the telephone or in person at your local Social Security office. SSI applications are not available online. Anyone can apply for SSI, and there is no charge to apply.

Once You’ve Been Approved

The amount of SSI benefits you will receive each month depends on your income. In 2015 & 2016, the maximum federal monthly SSI payment is $733 for an eligible individual and $1,100 for an eligible individual with an eligible spouse. But you will receive more or less than this amount if you make any income or if your state pays a supplement. You may also receive retroactive benefits.

SSA will periodically review your medical condition and your income and resources to see if you are still eligible for SSI and are receiving the right amount of benefits for your situation. If there are certain changes in your life, you have to report them right away to SSA. Common reportable changes include receiving other disability benefits, moving, a change in income or resources, getting married or divorced, leaving the United States, change in citizenship status, and being convicted of a crime.

If You’re Not Approved

If your application for SSI is denied, you do not have to give up hope, but you do have to act quickly. Once SSA makes a decision about your eligibility for benefits, it will send you a letter letting you know what its decision is. If you would like to appeal the decision, you must request a review of the decision within 60 days of when you receive the letter.

You can request an appeal on SSA’s website at https://secure.ssa.gov. If you do not want to appeal online, you can also call your local Social Security office and explain that you want to appeal the decision but do not want to do it online.

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