Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a federal program administered by the Social Security Administration that provides benefits to elderly, blind, or disabled individuals with limited income and resources. SSI should not be confused with Social Security retirement benefits or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, both of which provide benefits to workers who have paid Social Security taxes, regardless of their current income or asset levels.
Whether a person is eligible for SSI depends upon his or her age, income, resources, and (if under 65) whether a disability prevents him or her from performing full-time work.
Eligibility Based on Age, Blindness, or Disability
The Social Security Administration (SSA) processes applications for SSI benefits and sets its own guidelines on who qualifies as aged, blind, or disabled. Aged persons are defined as 65 or older. Those under 65 must either be blind or disabled to receive SSI. You are considered blind if you meet the agency's definition of "statutory blindness," which is generally having 20/200 vision or worse in your better eye (with corrective lenses) or a field of vision in your better eye of 20 degrees or less.
To be considered disabled for purposes of SSI, you must have a physical or mental impairment that prevents you from doing a substantial amount of work. One way the SSA determines whether you're able to do a substantial amount of work is by looking at how much income you can earn. In 2016, the threshold amount for what constitutes "substantial gainful activity" (SGA) is $1,130 for non-blind individuals and $1,820 for blind individuals. If your monthly earnings consistently exceed the SGA limit, you will not be found disabled. The SSA also looks at how your physical and/or mental impairments limit your ability to work. In addition to preventing you from performing meaningful work, your disability must also have lasted or be expected to last 12 months or be expected to result in death.
SSI Eligibility Requires Low Income
Your income is used to calculate the amount of SSI benefits you receive. In general, the more income you have, the less you'll receive in benefits—and if your income exceeds the threshold, you won't be eligible for benefits at all. In 2016, the threshold, if you are working, is about $1,500. If you aren't working, the threshold is $750. Because certain types of payments are excluded from your income, calculating your income for SSI eligibility can be complex.
For example, Social Security does not count the first $65 of earned income plus half of the remainder each month. However, if a roommate or other individual pays for your food or provides you with a free place to stay, that could be counted as "in-kind" support, and reduce your monthly benefit by as much as one-third.
Your Resources Must Be Limited
Your resources (assets) are also a factor in determining your eligibility for SSI. Resources include such things as bank accounts, land, and vehicles. In 2016, the SSI resource limits are $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples. However, as with income, not all of your resources are counted for purposes of determining eligibility. For example, the home in which you reside, the car you drive, and many household goods and personal items (such as wedding rings) are not counted as resources.
Other Factors Are Considered
SSI eligibility may involve consideration of other factors, such as your citizenship and residency. To receive SSI, you must be a U.S. citizen or qualified resident alien, and you must reside in the U.S. or in the Northern Mariana Islands. You cannot leave the country for 30 consecutive days or one full calendar month during the year. You must also give the Social Security Administration permission to access your personal financial information.
A Disability Attorney Can Help
The law involving Supplemental Security Income benefits is complicated, and the facts of each case are unique. While this article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic, you should contact an attorney specializing in disability law for advice tailored to your situation.