What is Supplemental Security Income?

In general terms, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a means-tested income maintenance program for the aged, blind and disabled.[1] It is administered by the Social Security Administration. Eligibility is limited to citizens, legally admitted refugees, and qualified aliens. The purpose of the SSI program is to provide income to pay for food and shelter.[2] The amount paid each month, known as the Federal Benefit Rate (FBR), is indexed to provide beneficiaries with seventy-five percent (75%) of the federal poverty rate.

The aged are defined as persons 65 years and older. The blind are individuals with 20/200 vision or less with the use of a correcting lens in the person’s better eye, or those with tunnel vision of 20 degrees or less. Disabled individuals are those unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determined physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or that has lasted, or can be expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months.[3] “Substantial gainful activity” generally refers to work activity that is “both substantial and gainful.”[4] In calendar year 2021 earnings are deemed substantial and gainful once they reach $1,310 in monthly income, with impairment-related expenses subtracted from earnings.[5] Generally, a disabled individual must be unable to do any kind of work that exists in the national economy, taking into account age, education, and work experience. Children may qualify for SSI if they are under age 18 (or under age 22 if a full-time student), unmarried, and meet the applicable SSI criteria for disability or blindness, income, and resources. Public Law 104-193, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, established a new disability definition for children under age 18 which requires a child to have “a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.[6]

Individuals and couples are eligible for SSI if their income falls below the Federal maximum monthly SSI benefit, $794 (2021) for an individual and $1,191 (2021) for a couple.[7] If only one member of a couple qualifies for SSI, part of the ineligible spouse’s income is considered available to the eligible spouse (this is called “deeming”).[8] If a couple separates, each person is treated as an individual in the month following the month of separation.[9] If an unmarried child living at home is under 18 years of age, then a portion of the parent’s income is deemed to that child.[10]

Since 1974 SSI eligibility has been restricted to qualified persons who have resources of not more than $2,000, or $3,000 in the case of a couple. The resource limit for a couple applies even if only one member of a couple is eligible.[11] If the couple separates, the person seeking SSI is treated as an individual in the following month. If an unmarried child living at home is under age 18, the parent’s assets are considered to be the child’s (i.e., deemed to the child). In determining countable resources, a number of items are not included, such as the individual’s home, and, within reasonable limits set by SSA, household goods, personal effects, an automobile, and a burial space for the individual, spouse, and members of the immediate family. Regulations place a limit of $2,000 in equity value on excluded household goods and personal effects. One vehicle is excluded. The value of property which is used in a person’s trade, or business, or by the person as an employee also is excluded. The value of certain other property that produces income, goods, or services essential to a person’s self-support may be excluded within limits set by SSA in regulations. SSI and Social Security retroactive benefit payments may not be considered as a resource for a period of 6 months after the month in which the retroactive benefit is received. Resources set aside under a PASS also are excluded.[12]

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1. Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381-1383f. The Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 (Public Law 106-169), incorporated most of the OBRA 1993 transfer-of-asset and trust provisions into the SSI cash assistance program, effective January 1, 2000. Thus, the special needs trust rules described in this document apply to SSI as well as Medicaid. Interestingly, there is not a single SSI regulation addressing special needs trusts; they are covered under the general resource rules that apply to other assets found in Subpart L, 20 C.F.R. § 416.1201416.1266. See D. Lillesand, Special Needs Trusts – 2005, at p. 9.4.

2. Formerly, it was said to provide food, clothing and shelter. Clothing was removed in final regulations published on February 7, 2005 as a way of simplifying the calculation of in-kind maintenance and support. See L. Anderson, In-Kind Support and Maintenance – A Trap for the Unwary (SNAThe Voice March 2020).

3. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

4. 20 C.F.R. § 220.141(a).

5. The annual SGA level is indexed for inflation. http://www.socialsecurity.gov/oact/cola/sga.html.

6. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). See also House Ways and Means Committee Prints: 108-6, 2004 Green Book.

7. Income includes cash, checks, and items received “in kind” such as food and shelter. Wages, net earnings from self-employment, and income from sheltered workshops are considered earned income. Social Security benefits, workers or Veteran’s compensation, annuities, rent, and interest are counted as unearned income. See http://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/SSI.html.

8. POMS SI 01310.001 explains the role of deeming. The concept recognizes some measure of family responsibility between spouses and between parents and children. When they apply, the deeming rules attribute income and resources to the eligible individual whether or not they are actually available. The term “Deemor” is defined in POMS SI 01310.127. In most cases, for purposes of public benefits planning, it means ineligible parents and spouses. Not all income is deemed. For example, POMS SI 01320.400 described how to calculate deemed income between spouses.

9. POMS SI 01310.160 provides that an ineligible spouse whose income and resources are subject to deeming must live with the eligible individual, eligible child or the sponsor. Deeming only applies in a household setting. POMS SI 01310.140.B.1. Deeming does not apply when an individual and ineligible spouse are living in an institution, even if they are sharing a room. POMS SI 01310.140.B.2.

10. See POMS SI 01320.500.

11. There are exclusions. For example, pension funds, including IRAs, held in an account for the ineligible spouse are excluded. POMS SI 01330.120.A.1.b. The same applies with parent-to-child deeming. POMS SI 01330.220.

12. A PASS is a Plan to Achieve Self-Support.

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