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What Is Supplemental Security Income?

By Dan Caplinger - Jun 24, 2016 at 2:03PM

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This little-understood part of Social Security helps many in need.


Image source: Getty Images.

Nearly every adult American either receives Social Security benefits or is hoping that they'll be available at retirement. But for many, the benefits that Social Security pays aren't enough. That's where the Supplemental Security Income program comes in.

The basics of SSI

The Social Security Administration runs the Supplemental Security Income program, which is designed to meet the financial needs of certain people with limited income and resources. SSI pays monthly benefits to those who are age 65 or older, or who are disabled or blind. In many cases, there is overlap between Supplemental Security Income benefits and the regular Social Security retirement or disability benefits that many people get from the SSA, but those recipients who meet the eligibility requirements can potentially get money from both programs.

There are several differences between the two programs. To get regular Social Security benefits, you or your spouse need to have worked for a certain period of time to gain coverage under the program. For SSI, however, no prior work is necessary. In addition, the funding for SSI comes from a different source than Social Security, with a separate federal authorization from general taxation providing the money that goes toward Supplemental Security Income payments.

SSI eligibility is often connected with other federal and state benefits. For instance, in most states, beneficiaries under Supplemental Security Income can also get medical assistance through state Medicaid programs to cover the costs of hospital stays, doctor bills, prescription drugs, and other health costs. States can tack on additional amounts to SSI payments, using the same income and financial criteria to determine eligibility. In nearly every state, food assistance is available to SSI recipients.

Qualifying for SSI

In order to receive Supplemental Security Income benefits, you need to meet income and financial resources tests. The limit for financial assets is $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples, but there are many exemptions in making the calculation. The most important are that you don't have to count the home you live in, one vehicle you use for transportation, and household goods and personal effects. Limited assets related to burial funds and life insurance are permitted, as are grants and scholarships for educational expenses and retroactive Social Security or SSI benefit payments.

Certain other assets also don't count for SSI purposes. Property essential for self-support is exempt, as is money saved in a special Individual Development Account. Proceeds of earned income tax credit payments, federal tax refunds, relocation assistance payments, and crime victim's assistance payments aren't included for a period of time from nine to 12 months after receipt. Certain trusts are also exempt. The SSA provides more information on financial resources at its SSI website here.

In addition, countable income above certain limits reduces the baseline federal SSI benefit that you'll receive. The first $20 of monthly income isn't counted, and the first $65 of earnings and half of all earnings above $65 for the month are also excluded. Tax refunds, home energy assistance, food stamp proceeds, and other need-based assistance are just a few of the many examples of special types of incoming cash flow that isn't countable as income for SSI purposes. However, Social Security benefits generally are included as countable income, whether they're for retirement or disability.

For any income that is countable, your SSI benefit will be reduced on a dollar-for-dollar basis. For 2016, the basic monthly SSI payment is $733 for an individual or $1,100 for a couple, which serves as the maximum payment and the starting point from which any reductions are taken.

Take advantage of your SSI benefits

Social Security is designed to help you make ends meet when you're retired or disabled, but for many, it's not enough. Supplemental Security Income can help those in need even further, so if you qualify, be sure to take the steps necessary to get the benefits you deserve.

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