Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Disability Eligibility for SSI

What is SSI?

As you may know, U.S. workers can receive monthly “Social Security” checks when they retire. There is another type of monthly check available to individuals with blindness or other disabilities who do not have a work history it’s called “Supplemental Security Income” (“SSI”).

SSI is a social safety net. SSI helps disabled people ages birth through 64 who have little or no income by providing a monthly cash payment. People who receive SSI are also eligible for other federal and state government programs and benefits that can help a person with education costs and become ready to gain competitive employment. In this way, SSI and these other programs provide a bridge to independence.

What kind of disabilities qualify a person to get SSI?

Legally Blind

Legal blindness meets the disability requirement to qualify for SSI so long as it has lasted or is expected to last at least 12 months. Legal blindness is based on a clinical eye exam and can be met by either central visual acuity (“20/200 or less in the better eye with the use of correcting lens”) or visual field loss (“widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle no greater than 20 degrees”).

Not legally blind

Disability eligibility for SSI for people who do not meet either definition of “legal blindness” is different and requires more proof of disability. To find out more about SSI for children or adults who are not “legally blind,” please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

Is that it?

No. There are more requirements to be met in order to qualify for SSI. Next week, the Free Bridges Helpdesk’s Transition Tip Tuesday will describe the “Income Limits for SSI Eligibility.”

Income Limits for SSI Eligibility

What do income and resources have to do with SSI?

“SSI helps disabled people who have little or no income by providing a monthly cash payment.” as noted in last week’s Transition Tip. For this reason, SSI eligibility is not just based on disability. An individual’s income and resources must meet certain guidelines in order for that individual to qualify for SSI. If these requirements are not met, the individual’s eligibility for SSI payments may be restricted for a short period of time or completely.

Whose income and resources count?

SSI for a child

If the person with a qualifying SSI disability is younger than 18, a portion of the income and resources of parents and step-parents with whom the lives are usually counted (“deemed”) in determining the child’s eligibility. Some benefit payments are not included as income. For specific questions, please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

SSI for an adult

One month after an individual turns 18 years old, the individual is considered an adult for SSI purposes, and their parents’ income and resources are no longer counted. Only income and resources in the adult’s name that can be controlled by the adult are counted.

Please note: if a parent claims an adult child is a dependent on their taxes, this can negatively impact the adult child’s SSI benefits. It is important to get expert advice based on your personal situation.

Income

What counts as income?

SSI considers four types of income:

  • Earned income, including wages, self-employment income, cash paid for work (like babysitting or lawn mowing), etc.
  • Unearned income, including cash gifts, other Social Security benefits, interest and dividends from investments, etc.
  • In-kind income, such as food or shelter provided for free or at less than market value
    • Includes cases where you live with someone (even your parent) for free.
    • If you are not paying rent or for food where you live, your monthly SSI payment will be cut by one-third.
    • The maximum SSI monthly benefit in 2021 is $794. A one-third reduction lowers that payment to $529.33—a reduction of 264.67 each month.
  • Deemed income, usually the income of a spouse, if you have one.

To find out more, please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

Exclusions from unearned and earned income

General exclusion

  • The first $20 in ANY KIND of income per month is excluded from income.
  • This exclusion only counts once per month, even if you have two or more kinds of income.

Unearned income

  • Every dollar of unearned income over the general exclusion ($20) reduces your monthly SSI payment by one dollar.
  • Examples:
    • If you receive a gift of $20, your payment will not change.
    • If you receive a $150 gift in one month, that monthly payment will be reduced by $130.

Earned Income

  • In addition to the general exclusion ($20), the first $65 in earned income each month is excluded from income.
  • Every TWO dollars of earned income over the total exclusion ($65 + $20) reduces your monthly SSI payment by one dollar.
  • Example: You earn $175 and do not have unearned income
    • Your monthly exclusion is $85, so your earned income after exclusions is $90 ($175-$85). SSI counts half of that income: $45 ($90/2).
    • Your monthly SSI payment would decrease by $45 in a month when you earn $175.

Other earned income exclusions and deductions

  • Economic impact payments (EIP), as known as COVID stimulus payments
  • Exclusions of all work-related expenses for blind individuals
  • Student Earned Income Exclusion (available until you reach age 22)
  • Exclusions and benefits related to an approved PASS plan (plan to achieve self-support)
  • Impairment-related work expense (IRWE) deduction
  • Other miscellaneous exclusions

To find out more, please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

Keep in mind

Cash gifts can disqualify you for SSI for the month you receive them.

  • Even gifts for birthdays, graduation, and other holidays count as income for SSI for the month in which you receive them.
  • You have the duty to report these gifts to SSI.

Limitations on Resources for SSI Eligibility

What do resources have to do with SSI?

As noted in March 2’s Transition Tip, “SSI helps disabled people who have little or no income by providing a monthly cash payment.” so SSI eligibility is not just based on disability. Last week’s Transition Tip explored income limits for SSI. This week, we examine how a person’s resources can impact SSI eligibility.

Whose resources count?

SSI for a child

If the person with a qualifying SSI disability is younger than 18, a portion of the resources of parents and step-parents with whom the lives are usually counted (“deemed”) in determining the child’s eligibility. For specific questions, please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

SSI for an adult

One month after an individual turns 18 years old, the individual is considered an adult for SSI purposes, and their parents’ resources are no longer counted. Only resources in the adult’s name that can be controlled by the adult are counted.

Please note: if a parent claims an adult child is a dependent on their taxes, this can negatively impact the adult child’s SSI benefits. It is important to get expert advice based on your personal situation.

Resources

What are resources?

For SSI purposes, resources include things you own or have control of. They include cash, bank accounts, and investments. They also include land and personal property.

SSI payments are meant to help you obtain food and shelter; they are not meant to provide income. For individuals, the resource limit is $2,000. You are not entitled to an SSI payment for any month you are over this resource limit, and you will be required to pay back SSI if you have already received a monthly payment.

Exclusions

General exclusions

  • There is a list of things that are always excluded from resources, including one vehicle, some prepaid burial expenses, and some work-related property (if you are working).
  • Certain kinds of accounts that meet strict guidelines
  • Retroactive SSI payments (back payments owed) for nine months
  • Economic impact payments (EIP), as known as COVID stimulus payments
  • Other less-common exclusions

Spend down

  • In general, if your resources are too great, you will not be eligible for an SSI monthly payment until you “spend down” to the resource limit. (There are some exceptions.)
  • For certain items (like retroactive SSI payments and COVID stimulus payments), you have several months to spend down the funds before they will count as resources
  • There are specific rules about how to “spend down” resources, and it is important to follow these rules.

To find out more, please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

Is there a way to save money for expenses and still receive SSI payments?

Yes. Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) accounts allow many individuals with disabilities to save money tax-free in order to pay for certain expenses. Also, the first $100,000 if funds ABLE accounts do not count as resources for SSI or for several other federal benefit programs.

ABLE accounts can be a great savings vehicle for qualifying disabled people, whether or not they receive SSI. Each week in April, the Free Bridges Helpdesk’s Transition Tip Tuesdays will provide information to help you answer the question: “ABLE Accounts—Are They for Me?”

More Than Just Money: Additional Benefits of Getting SSI

Medicaid Eligibility

In Maryland (and most states), once you are approved for SSI benefits, you will also be approved for Medicaid benefits. Medicaid in Maryland covers doctor’s visits, emergency room visits, prescriptions, and other medical needs with low co-pays or no co-pay at all. If you are covered under another plan (like your parent’s insurance), you can still get Medicaid as your secondary (back-up) insurance.

Like SSI, Medicaid has income limits and resources limits discussed in previous articles in this series: Income Limits for SSI Eligibility and Limitations on Resources for SSI Eligibility. However, you may still receive Medicaid benefits even when you are ineligible for SSI due to income or resource levels.

Please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

Establishing Your Own “Household” for Benefit Purposes

As noted in Income Limits for SSI Eligibility, your monthly SSI payment is based on income, and free rent and food from family or friends is considered “in-kind income” and will reduce your monthly SSI payment by one-third. For 2021, that means that a typical monthly payment of $794 would be reduced to $529. That’s a difference of $265 each month—adding up to $3,180 over the course of a year.

However, by paying rent and receiving SSI, you might not qualify to be a dependent anymore for your parents’ taxes. Therefore, it’s important to discuss these matters early to determine what is best for your family. Please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

Vocational Rehabilitation Services and Support

Individuals with “legal blindness” and other significant disabilities qualify for vocational rehabilitation (VR) services. In Maryland, these services are provided by The Office for Blindness & Vision Services (OBVS), part of the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS), the agency that provides VR services to individuals with disabilities.

These VR services are focused on helping individuals with disabilities find competitive work and can include help paying disability-related training programs, college expenses, and assistive technology (such as refreshable braille displays, magnification devices, and accessible software). Usually, OBVS will only pay a portion of these expenses—based on the individual’s income and resources. However, OBVS clients who are receiving SSI do not need to contribute to the cost of these services and supports.

You can become a DORS/OBVS client when you’re as young as 14 years old, and there’s no upper age limit. If you want more information about VR services in Maryland, please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk.

Other Government Benefits

Please note that these government benefits are dependent on you establishing your own “household.” Thus, establishing your own household can not only increase your SSI monthly benefit, it makes you eligible for additional benefits.

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides funds that can be used to purchase food, including some drinks like milk. This program used to be known as “food stamps,” and it is intended to help individuals with low incomes afford adequate nutrition.

In Maryland, SNAP benefits can be used at grocery stores. You may also purchase eligible food items from Amazon, Walmart, or Shop Rite using your SNAP benefits. In addition, you may use SNAP benefits to purchase prepared meals at approved restaurants.

Please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information and help in applying for the SNAP program.

Free cell phone or landline services

Lifeline is a government program that provides free cell phone or landline services to low-income individuals. Individuals with SSI or SNAP benefits qualify for the Lifeline program, and they may choose which company to use. These companies offer different plans and include free talk and text minutes and free data plans, but there can only be one Lifeline service per “household.” Please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information and help in applying for free phone services through the Lifeline program.

Other government assistance programs

In Maryland, state supplements to SSI payments are limited to individuals who are living in a care home, an assisted living facility, or a rehabilitative residence. Nevertheless, Marylanders may qualify for other cash assistance programs if they meet certain requirements. There are also special programs to help with temporary or emergency needs.

Disability-related Transportation Discounts

Maryland offers some discount programs (particularly related to transportation) that are available to individuals with disabilities. These do not require that the individual receive SSI, but “legal blindness” often meets the eligibility requirement. These programs include “Maryland Parking Placards/License Plates for Individuals with a Disability,” discounted fares and/or MobilityLink transportation from the Maryland Transit Administration, and reduced fare and paratransit programs with regional transit programs in Maryland.

Amtrak, the federal passenger train service, also offers discounts for passengers with disabilities.

Please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

Discounts from Private Businesses

Internet services

Comcast offers “Internet Essentials,” which provides internet services to certain individuals (including those receiving SSI or SNAP benefits) for only $9.95 per month. Comcast is currently offering the first two months for free if you sign up by June 30, 2021. This program also waives application fees and equipment rental fees.

Amazon Prime membership

Amazon Prime membership provides a good number of benefits, including free Prime shipping, streaming videos and music, discounts and early access to shopping options, and more. Prime membership usually costs $12.99 per month, but individuals receiving SSI or SNAP benefits pay only $5.99 per month. Please note that this is the full Amazon Prime membership, and all regular membership benefits are included.

National Parks and Museums

National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Access Pass

This pass is valid at more than 2,000 federal recreation sites (national parks, national wildlife refuges, and national forests and grasslands). The “pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day-use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person).” The Access Pass also provides a 50% discount on expanded amenity fees at many locations.

Free and discounted museum admissions

Museums for All is a program that offers free or discounted museum admission for individuals who receive SNAP benefits. The maximum entrance fee in this program is $3. There are eighteen participating museums in the state of Maryland and more than 500 across the country. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the museums are currently closed; nevertheless, here is the full list of participating museums in the Museums for All program.

How to Apply for SSI and What to Expect

Make Sure You are Financially Eligible

As noted in the past two Transition Tips [“Income Limits for SSI Eligibility and “Limitations on Resources for SSI Eligibility”, an individual must meet strict financial requirements in order to qualify for SSI. If you have too many resources to qualify, it might make sense to look into ways to legally transfer those resources (ABLE accounts, which will be discussed in April’s Transition Tips, are one legal way to transfer resources and retain SSI eligibility).

Please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

Before You Start

Social Security number needed

In order to apply for SSI benefits, you need to have a Social Security number. Many individuals get this number soon after they are born or become U.S. citizens. (Note: Legal residents who are non-citizens may receive Social Security cards, but they might not be eligible for SSI.) If you are unsure whether you have a Social Security number, ask your parent or guardian for help.

If you do not have a Social Security number or have misplaced your Social Security card, you may request a new or replacement Social Security card by completing this application and sending it to the Social Security Administration.

Direct deposit bank account needed

SSI payments are only made electronically, so you must have an electronic means to receive your SSI benefits. There is an option to have your benefits loaded onto a special debit card, but bank accounts provide more options and flexibility. Given SSI eligibility limitations on resources [see Limitations on Resources for SSI Eligibility], it is best to have the bank account for your SSI benefits in your own name alone. You may use an existing bank account or open a new one. For the SSI application process, you’ll need to bank’s routing number and your account number.

Create a my Social Security account online

If you apply online, you will need to create this account. Even if you do not apply online, you can use this account to monitor your application status, request a replacement Social Security card, and more. Follow this link to set up your my Social Security account.

When and How to Apply

When are you eligible?

Apply as soon as you are eligible to do so. If you are under 18 years old and your parents’ income and resources meet SSI guidelines, apply as soon as you can. If you are intending to apply as an adult, you may call to set up a telephone appointment before your 18th birthday. However, the appointment, itself, will not take place until after your 18th birthday. If you are 18 years old or older and meet the income and resource eligibility requirements for SSI, you may apply at any time.

Why should I apply so soon?

SSI benefits can only be paid as far back as your date of application. They might not be paid that far back if other factors (such as deeming parental income, being over income or resource limits, etc.) apply.

Telephone applications

Individuals may apply for SSI in several ways. Application by telephone [1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday] allows you to communicate directly with an employee, but it can be time-consuming. Both the application itself and the waiting time for an employee to be available to answer the phone can take quite a long period of time.

In-person applications

In-person applications have not been permitted since March 17, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the date of publication (March 30, 2021), local offices have not yet reopened, and there is not an option to apply for SSI in person.

Online applications

Applying for SSI online is often convenient, but certain requirements must be met. The applicant must be between the ages of 18 and 64, must be a U.S. citizen residing in the U.S., must have never been married, and have never applied for or received SSI benefits in the past.

Please note that, in the past, you could NOT use the online method of applying for SSI under the disability of blindness (legal blindness). This prohibition is still noted on some areas of the Social Security Administration website but not on others. Thus, it is unclear whether blind individuals may apply online. It is clear that all people applying for SSI may apply by phone or in-person (which is not available right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

If your disability is something other than blindness and you meet the other requirements, you may apply online. However, remember that the eligibility criteria are different for individuals who are not legally blind [see “Disability Eligibility for SSI.”]

Information needed for the application process

Your legal name and address, your social security number, any employment history you have, whether you are or have been married, names and birthdates of any children you have, and your employment history (if any). You also need to indicate the disability (or disabilities) under which you are applying for SSI and share the names and contact information for all of your medical providers (even if not directly related to your SSI disability). You may be asked to provide documentation, so it’s good to have your Social Security card, birth certificate, state-issued identification card, and relevant medical records available.

What Comes Next?

Eligibility determination

While you apply for SSI with the Social Security Administration, that office does not review your records. Instead, the office sends your file to an agency in your state to evaluate whether you are entitled to SSI based on your disability. In Maryland this office, “Disability Determination Services” (DDS) is part of the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS).

DDS will review the records you provide and may contact your doctors and medical providers. The DDS may determine that it needs a medical examination to confirm your blindness (or other disability). If it does, it will set up the appointment, pay for the appointment, and pay for you to go to the appointment. You need to go to the appointment and perform the required tests; if you do not, your claim can be rejected.

Substantial gainful activity (SGA) is not a factor for blindness

The DDS might also send you a questionnaire seeking information about what kind of work you can do. This information is not required if you meet the definition “legal blindness” [see “Disability Eligibility for SSI.”] If you believe that your eye condition constitutes “legal blindness,” you might want to put off completing the SGA worksheet until the DDS determines your eligibility based only on blindness. If you think you might not meet the definition of “legal blindness,” you might want to complete the SGA worksheet so other disabilities may be considered. Regardless, if you are legally blind, your ability to engage in SGA cannot be used to deny you SSI.

Be Prepared to Wait

SSI determinations are not quick. They usually take three to five months to complete. Eligibility determinations can take even longer in the pandemic environment, especially if the DDS requires you to take a medical examination for eligibility determination purposes.

During this time period, you will not receive SSI benefits (there are certain, limited exceptions). Instead, if you are found to be eligible, you will receive “back pay” for the months you were eligible during the determination process. This back pay is dependent on your financial eligibility each month, and it cannot go back further than your application date. While the “back pay” often is an amount greater than the resource limits of SSI, you are given nine months to spend your back pay before that pay will be counted as a resource.

During the evaluation time period, you may or may not qualify for additional benefits [see “More Than Just Money: Additional Benefits of Getting SSI.”]

Please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

Contact us

Follow the Bridges Helpdesk Facebook page for more transition tips, and please contact the Free Helpdesk for Maryland Blind/Low Vision Transition Students, Families, and Educators anytime using:

This unique project is being coordinated through The IMAGE Center of Maryland, a center for independent living in Towson, and it is funded by a grant from the Maryland Department of Education Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services.

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