Most Americans are familiar with Social Security, with tens of millions of people receiving benefits either after they retire or if they become disabled. But another program that the Social Security Administration runs, called Supplemental Security Income or SSI, is less well-known, even though it plays an equally important role for many families. In particular, the availability of SSI for children can help bring in much-needed funds for parents who are struggling financially to support their families. Here are some of the things every parent should know about getting SSI benefits for a child in need.
How SSI helps children
The Supplemental Security Income program is aimed at people with limited income and financial resources who are disabled, blind, or age 65 or older. It's separate from regular Social Security payments, and SSI is funded from the regular government budget rather than from dedicated Social Security taxes.
In order for children to receive SSI, they must be under 18, or under 22 and regularly attending school. They must be disabled or blind, and their families must meet the limited income and resources tests. Specifically, to establish that a child is disabled, you must show that the child has a physical or mental condition that very seriously limits activities, and the condition must be expected to last at least one year or be terminal. Parents should prepare for a disability interview by gathering information about treatment, medical records, a list of medications, and a copy of the child's birth certificate. In addition, family information as well as any other social-service assistance you're receiving on behalf of the child can also give more information to those who make the SSI decision. Form SSA-3820 [opens PDF] provides the format on which you can report this information.
Once the disabled child turns 18, SSI reevaluates based on the definition of disability for adults. That definition looks more at the inability to perform a "substantial gainful activity," which refers generally to paid employment.
Dealing with the financial tests
Two financial tests apply to SSI benefits: income and financial resources. If a child has income, it can reduce the SSI benefit. But the SSA excludes many items from income, including the first $20 of any income, the first $65 of earnings plus half of earnings over that amount, and the value of most need-based government assistance, including food stamps and home energy assistance. For students under age 22, up to $1,780 per month in earned income is excludable, with a yearly maximum of $7,180.
Second, a child must have less than a set amount of financial resources. The limit for countable resources is $2,000 for an individual, excluding the family residence, one vehicle for transportation, household goods, and a mix of other assets such as small life insurance policies. If your resources are over the limit, then you won't qualify for SSI benefits.
For children under 18 and living at home with parents who don't receive SSI, the SSA can take into account some of the parents' income and resources as if they were available to the child. The SSA adjusts those resources to reflect others living in the home, including other children not eligible for SSI.
SSI: A gateway to other benefits
One reason why getting SSI for children can be valuable is that it can help pave the way to getting other valuable benefits. For instance, in most states, if a child receives SSI, eligibility for Medicaid can also be automatic. Similarly, eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, can occur when you apply for SSI.
Unfortunately, the SSI process can be long and complex. The SSA warns that a final decision on disability can take months, although it notes that it has an obligation to provide faster benefits when a serious medical condition makes it obvious that a child is disabled.
To get more help on SSI, you can call the SSA at 800-772-1213 or look at the SSI website at this link. Despite the complexity of the program, SSI can provide valuable benefits for disabled children to help struggling families find ways to make ends meet and give their kids a greater level of financial security and support.