What Is Supplemental Security Income (SSI)? | Full Guide

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You often hear about Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, in the same context as Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI. While the Social Security Administration handles and administers both of these programs, the two are entirely separate. There are also very distinct differences between the two regarding funding, eligibility, and payment amounts. SSI benefits exist to help those who cannot meet their financial obligations because of their age or a disability. Keep reading as we give you a complete guide to SSI, including what it is, how it works, and how to qualify.


What Is Supplemental Security Income (SSI)?

SSI is a Federal program in the United States that helps provide financial assistance for those unable to work due to age or disability. This program is separate and different from traditional Social Security retirement benefits or Social Security disability benefits. To qualify for SSI, there must be a financial need. You must have limited income and resources to qualify. This means that if your income is too high or you have too much money in the bank, then you will not be able to receive these benefits.

When it comes to regular Social Security benefits, those payments are funded from the payroll taxes that workers pay into the system. In most cases, you likely pay into the system for 30 years or more so that you can receive retirement benefits when you retire. Similarly, you must pay Social Security taxes for at least ten years to qualify for Social Security disability insurance. The SSI program is in place to help those people who do not have sufficient work credits to receive other benefits from Social Security.

Most of the money used for SSI payments comes from the U.S. Treasury general funds. The payments are not funded through Social Security taxes like other Social Security programs. While the SSA does administer the SSI program, it is quite different from the other programs under the control of the administration. In fact, although Social Security was started in 1935, the SSI program was not enacted until 1972. Until then, it was the responsibility of each state to care for these low-income individuals who were unable to provide for themselves.

Though SSI is a Federal program, many states supplement the SSI program with payments of their own for qualifying individuals. This allows these individuals to have enough money to meet their basic needs. Federal SSI payments are quite low, and they are generally not enough for a person to live on. For 2024, individual payments only reach a maximum of $943 per month. For a couple on SSI, the payment only rises to $1,415. While this is a great benefits program that helps many people, the monthly payments are often so low that it is still difficult to survive without some assistance from state programs. Many people on SSI disability also receive food stamps as part of a nutrition assistance program to help provide food for themselves or their family members, as well as Medicaid for health insurance coverage.


Who Qualifies For Supplemental Security Income (SSI)?

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So, how do you qualify for SSI payments?

  • There is no work history requirement for SSI like there is for SSDI or retirement benefits. You can qualify for SSI even if you have never worked and paid into the Social Security system. However, there are some other eligibility requirements that you must meet to qualify for this monthly benefit.
  • You must be 65 or older, blind, or disabled. In some cases, children can qualify for SSI benefits if they have a qualifying disability. When it comes to a child, the disability must be a severe functional disability, and it must have lasted or be expected to last at least 12 months or result in death.
  • You must be a U.S. citizen or national. Non-citizens are not eligible to receive SSI benefits, although there are other programs available for which they may qualify.
  • You must also have your permanent residence in one of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, or the Northern Mariana Islands.
  • SSI eligibility is restricted to those who have low income and limited resources. Your assets as an individual must total $2,000 or less. For a couple, that limit is raised to $3,000. It is also important to note what kinds of items are counted as income or assets versus which ones are not.
    • While the formula for calculating income is relatively complex, there are a few general guidelines that are pretty easy to follow. The SSA will look at your “countable income” when determining eligibility for the SSI program. Some items are quite obvious. If you earn money working at a job, then that counts toward your countable income, although there are a few exceptions. Income that you get from pensions or regular Social Security also counts. Money that you receive from most government aid programs, like food stamps, does not count toward the limit. Income tax refunds also do not count toward the limit.
    • When it comes to meeting the limited resource requirement, money that you have in bank accounts, stocks, bonds, or cash will count toward the $2,000 individual limit. Real estate that is not your primary residence will also count. However, your home and your vehicle do not count toward the resource limit.

If you meet all the requirements laid out above, then you can go ahead and start the application process to receive SSI benefits. You should also remember that you must keep the Social Security Administration informed of any changes that might affect your eligibility. For example, if you take a new job with a higher income, then this might bring an end to your SSI payments.


Applying For Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Benefits

So, what does the SSI application process look like? There are a few different ways that you can complete the application process. The easiest method is to complete the SSI application online through the Social Security Administration website. This is the quickest way to apply, and you can also track the status of your application through the same website. If you are unable to apply online, then you can call the Social Security Administration and complete an application over the phone. They can be reached at 1-800-772-1213 (or TTY 1-800-325-0778 if you are deaf or hard of hearing). This will allow you to set up a telephone appointment with a representative who can take your application over the phone.

If you are unable to complete the application yourself, then you can have another person assist you with your application. That person can act as your representative throughout the application process. Finally, you can apply for benefits in person at your local Social Security office. The SSA recommends that you call to schedule an appointment before heading down to the office.  If you show up as a walk-in they may not be able to serve you the same day or your wait might be long.

Regardless of which application method you choose, there is some documentation that you will be required to produce as part of the process. First, you will need your Social Security card or number. Next, you will need a document that proves your age, such as a birth certificate. You must provide a citizenship status record, like a birth certificate or U.S. passport, that proves you are a U.S. citizen.

Finally, you will need to provide documentation of your income and resources. This could include tax returns, pay stubs, bank statements, vehicle registrations, deeds, or any other document requested by the SSA during the application process. If you are applying due to a disability, then you will need sufficient medical records from your doctor that prove your disability status.


Appealing A Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Denial

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Just because your initial application for benefits is denied, that does not mean that all hope is lost. You still have the right to appeal that decision. Appealing an SSI decision follows the same process and procedure as appealing an SSDI determination. You first would request a reconsideration of your case. You can file this appeal online, but it must be done within 60 days of your initial determination. Failure to file your appeal within the specified timelines can result in a dismissal of your appeal.

If you still believe that the decision is incorrect after the reconsideration stage, then you can request a hearing. This is where you have the opportunity to go in front of an administrative law judge and make your case. The judge will hear evidence from you as well as expert witnesses who may testify to your medical history or ability to work. Again, this appeal must be filed within 60 days of the reconsideration decision.

After the judge’s ruling, your case can be appealed to the Social Security Administration Appeals Council. Finally, the highest level of appeal is to the Federal Court. Very few SSI appeals go all the way to the Federal Court, although there is a small percentage of cases that go that far. Many disabled people have their initial application denied and end up getting benefits awarded during the appeals process, so do not give up if your application gets denied. If you are truly entitled to benefits, then continue to push your case and consider getting an attorney to help you. One of the biggest tips for winning your SSI appeal is to have all your documentation in order and do not miss deadlines. Your medical records need to be complete and thorough so that the judge or council can see evidence of your disability.


The Bottom Line

SSI recipients rely on this program for financial assistance to help meet their basic life needs. There is no work history requirement to qualify for this program, although you must show a financial need to receive these payments. You might also be entitled to food stamps, Medicaid, or other government assistance as well. If your application for benefits is denied or you disagree with the benefit amount, then you can appeal the decision all the way to Federal Court. Many applicants who are initially denied benefits end up being successful on their appeal.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between Social Security and SSI?

Social Security benefits are paid to retirees and disabled people who are unable to work. However, to receive those benefits, you must have paid Social Security taxes for a specific number of years. With SSI benefits, there is no work requirement. These benefits are intended to help those with limited income provide for basic life needs. People receiving these benefits must be unable to work due to age or disability, and they must also have limited income and resources. Regular Social Security benefits have no limit on the amount of income or resources that you can receive in addition to your benefits.

How much money does SSI pay per month?

SSI monthly payments are fairly low. In 2024, an individual may receive a maximum monthly benefit of $943, while a couple can only receive $1,415. These amounts are set by the Federal Benefit Rate. This is why it is often necessary for individuals receiving SSI benefits to get assistance from state programs that provide other financial help.

What is the difference between SSI and disability?

The work requirement is the most significant difference between SSI and SSDI, or disability. To get disability payments, you must have paid Social Security taxes for at least ten years. However, SSI does not have a work requirement. Disability payments are usually a little higher than SSI benefits, and disability insurance payments are not limited to those with low income. Some people might attempt to collect both unemployment and Social Security disability; however, the eligibility requirements for those two programs are fundamentally at odds with each other.