For nearly 50 years, the Supplemental Security Income program has helped make sure that some of America’s most vulnerable citizens have access to cash assistance that helps them meet their most basic needs. If you think you or a loved one may qualify for SSI benefits, it’s important to understand everything you can about eligibility requirements and the application process.
Applying for federal assistance programs can be a complicated and sometimes frustrating process if you aren’t clear on the necessary steps and requirements. Many applicants choose to work with a qualified disability attorney as they navigate the application process.
We will walk you through everything you need to know so you can determine whether SSI benefits are right for you, plus all the steps, resources, and documentation you need to increase the chances of your benefits claim being approved.
The Supplemental Security Income program is a federal assistance program designed to help low-income recipients who are aged, blind, or disabled meet their basic needs. These needs include food, clothing, and shelter. Supplemental Security Income benefits are issued on a monthly basis.
Though the program is administered by the Social Security Administration, it’s important to note that SSI benefits are funded solely by general federal tax revenues and are not related to Social Security tax in any way. Though the federal government provides the bulk of SSI payments, some states pay additional amounts. However, eligibility requirements and federal SSI payment standards are standardized across the country.
The SSI program in the United States was launched in 1972. SSI began paying benefits in January 1974, when SSI replaced the federal-state adult assistance programs that were in place in all 50 states. Each year, payment amounts are reviewed and adjusted as appropriate to align with the cost-of-living increase added to benefits from the Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance program.
The SSI program started primarily as a support for aged Americans, but over time, its enrollees have begun to feature a large population of children and disabled adults. Each year, more than 6 million recipients receive a monthly benefit through the SSI program.
The Supplemental Security Income program and the Social Security Disability Insurance program are administered by the Social Security Administration, and the two programs do share some similarities. For example, both programs pay benefits every month and the two programs share similar requirements for medical documentation of disabilities. However, the programs are quite different when it comes to the income level and work history of the applicant.
As a general rule, applicants must meet low-income specifications to qualify for SSI benefits, while applicants must have accrued a certain number of work credits based on taxable employment to qualify as recipients of SSDI benefits.
Disability insurance (SSDI) helps American workers who have become disabled to begin receiving their Social Security benefits early, without waiting until age 65. But they must have worked a minimum number of years during which they paid Social Security tax. SSDI eligibility is not calculated in any way based on an applicant’s income. It is simply based on sufficient work credits and qualifying medical conditions.
On the other hand, the SSI program is designed specifically to make sure that vulnerable Americans with low incomes who also live with disabilities (or over age 65) can receive the financial assistance they need. The SSA does not consider work history when determining whether an applicant is eligible for SSI disability benefits.
In most states, those who qualify for SSI benefits also qualify for Medicaid benefits under their state’s program. In addition, SSI recipients may also qualify for some state-level food assistance programs. In many states, an application for SSI benefits also serves as an application for food assistance and the state’s other benefit programs. Similarly, those who are eligible for SSDI will qualify for benefits under the federal Medicare program once they have received continuous SSDI benefits for two years.
One other difference to note between the two programs is their sources of funding. SSI benefits are funded through general dollars from the U.S. Treasury, which comes from corporate taxes, personal income taxes, and other sources. SSDI benefits, on the other hand, are funded by Social Security taxes collected under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) or the Self-Employment Contributions Act (SECA).
In some rare cases, recipients may qualify for both SSDI and SSI benefits. In these cases, the applicant must meet the SSA’s definition of “disabled,” and also has income and resources falling below the SSI qualification levels – even after receiving a disability (SSDI) monthly payment.
To qualify for an SSI cash benefit, you must meet specific eligibility criteria, including being blind, aged, or disabled. In addition, you must show that both income and resources are limited as defined by the SSA. An applicant also must be a U.S. citizen, national, or qualified non-citizen who meets the requirements set forth by the Social Security Administration. The applicant must also be a resident of one of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, or the Northern Mariana Islands.
As a non-citizen, you must be able to show that you are a “qualified alien,” as defined by the Department of Homeland Security. Any of the following categories qualify for this status:
- Any refugee granted entry into the United States under Section 207 of the Immigration and Nationality Act
- Anyone granted asylum under Section 208 of the INA
- Anyone Lawfully Admitted for Permanent Residence (LAPR), as defined in PL 100-202, with a designated admission class of AM-1-AM-8
- Anyone whose deportation is being withheld under Section 243(h) of INA, or whose removal is being withheld under Section 241(b)(3) under the INA
- A Cuban or Haitian entrant under Section 501(d) of the Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980, or who is classified according to a status that must be treated as a Cuban or Haitian entrance for SSI consideration
- Anyone paroled into the United States under Section 212(d)(5) of the INA for at least a year
- Anyone granted conditional entry into the United States under Section 203(a)(7) of the INA
If you can be classified as a member of any qualified alien category listed here, or if you have been named a “deemed qualified alien” because you have been subjected to battery or extreme cruelty, you can be eligible for SSI payment. You must show documentation of limited income and resources, and show that you are aged, blind or disabled.
Additionally, one of the following specific conditions must be met:
- You were lawfully residing in the U.S. and receiving an SSI cash benefit on August 22, 1996.
- You are Lawfully Admitted for Permanent Residence with 40 qualifying quarters of earnings. Work completed by a spouse or parent also may count toward your 40 quarters of earnings. Please note that quarters of earned income after December 31, 1996, will not be counted if you, your spouse, or parent(s) worked or received certain benefits from the U.S. government based on limited income and resources.
- You are currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces, or you are an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. armed forces. This condition may also apply if you are the spouse, widow(er), or dependent child of some U.S. military personnel.
- You were lawfully residing in the United States on August 22, 1996, and you are blind or disabled.
Some applicants who are victims of severe human trafficking or who are classified as Iraqi/Afghan Special Immigrants also may be eligible for SSI benefits.
No matter citizenship status, all SSI applicants must provide documentation that the duration of their current medical condition is expected to last at least 12 months. Total documented income also must fall below the levels set for the SSI program.
The SSA stipulates a few additional eligibility criteria for all applicants, as outlined below:
- You must not be absent from the United States for 30 or more consecutive days or for a full calendar month
- You must not be confined to any institution, such as a prison or hospital, at the expense of the U.S. government
- When applying for SSI, you must simultaneously apply for any other cash payments or benefits for which you may be eligible (like Social Security benefits)
By applying for SSI benefits, you grant permission for the SSA to access your financial records. Once you are approved for SSI benefits, the Social Security Administration will review your medical records every 3-7 years to assess the current state of your medical condition. The SSA will review your financial records every year to confirm that countable income remains at an appropriate level to qualify for the program.
When it comes to SSI eligibility, it’s important to understand the definitions the SSA uses to define eligibility criteria. For example, the term “aged” refers to Americans who are 65 or older. The term “blindness” is defined by having either a central visual acuity for distance of 20/200 or less in the better eye with use of a correcting lens, or a visual field limitation in the better eye, such that the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle no greater than 20 degrees.
Keep in mind that if you do not meet the SSA’s definition of blindness, that doesn’t mean you’re automatically denied SSI disability benefits – some eye conditions also may qualify for SSI payment under the definition of “disability.”
The SSA uses different definitions for “disabled,” depending on whether the applicant is a child or an adult. The SSA defines a disabled child as someone under age 18 who has a severe, medically documented physical or mental health issue that has lasted or is expected to last at least one year.
To be considered a disabled adult by the SSA, a person must be age 18 or older and show a documented physical or mental health condition that prevents the person from securing gainful employment. The disability must be expected to last at least one year.
When it comes to the income and resources component of the SSA’s eligibility requirements, the Administration will consider any money earned from work or received from additional sources, such as unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation benefits, Social Security benefits, VA benefits, or money given to you by friends or family. The SSA also will consider any free food or shelter you are given as part of your countable income.
The SSA will examine your financial resources, which include bank accounts, cash on hand, stocks, land, life insurance, personal property, vehicles, and anything else you may own that could feasibly be converted to cash and used to purchase food and shelter. Typically, the SSA considers individuals and/or children with resources less than $2000 and couples with financial resources under $3000 to be eligible for SSI benefits.
Some specific categories of applicants are prohibited from receiving SSI disability benefits. They include the following:
- Anyone with an unsatisfied felony or arrest warrant
- Anyone who gives away or sells resources for less than what they are worth in order to meet the resources requirement for eligibility
- Any non-citizen who fails to meet alien status requirements
- Any SSI recipient receiving benefits who leaves the country for 30 consecutive days or a full calendar month
The requirements for SSI are specific and complex. If you are unsure about whether you qualify, feel free to reach out to the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 or TTY 800-325-0778 if you are deaf or hard of hearing.
The Social Security Administration provides a few different methods for you to apply for SSI benefits.
First, you can start your application online by visiting the SSA’s Apply Online for Disability Benefits website. Depending on your specific circumstances, you may be able to complete the entire application process online.
You can also call the SSA at 800-772-1213 – or TTY 800-325-0778 if you are deaf or hard of hearing – and make an appointment to file your application with an SSA representative. If you need to, you can have someone else call to make the appointment for you or file the application with an SSA representative on your behalf. Finally, you can call your local SSA office and make an appointment for a local representative to help you file your application.
It’s important to file your application as soon as possible if you think you may be eligible for SSI payments – please note that the Social Security Administration doesn’t pay SSI benefits retroactively, so you will only be eligible for benefits starting the date your formal application is filed. It’s also extremely important that you keep each appointment you make with an SSA representative regarding your application. If you miss your original appointment, you may call and reschedule. In most cases, as long as you follow up and get your application filed within 60 days of your original appointment, the SSA will allow you to use your original appointment date as the date of filing.
There is no charge for filing an SSI application, and anyone can apply. In addition, the SSA can help you complete all appropriate paperwork associated with your application, and SSA representatives also can help you track down the essential documentation you need to support your application.
In addition, many applicants find it helpful to work with a trusted and knowledgeable Social Security attorney or a disability advocate who can help them navigate the complexities of the entire SSI application process. The SSA allows you to designate someone you trust as your representative. This person may help with the application and may attend all necessary meetings and medical appointments with you.
If you are blind or disabled, and existing medical documentation is not sufficient to support your application, the SSA might pay for you to undergo appropriate medical testing. In some cases, the SSA also may cover travel expenses associated with getting the necessary tests.
Once your application is complete, it will be reviewed by SSA representatives, and you will receive a written notice of the Administration’s decision – this is your initial determination. If your application is denied, or you disagree with the benefit amount awarded, you may file an appeal.
The SSA appeals process generally follows the following path:
- Initial determination
- Hearing by an Administrative Law Judge
- Appeals Council Review
- Federal Court Review
Once you’ve received your initial determination, you have 60 days in which to request an appeal – the steps for doing so will be outlined in detail within your determination letter. Typically, you can make your appeal request online, by phone, or by mail.
In the reconsideration phase, all aspects of your application will be reviewed again by a separate set of reviewers – keep in mind that this means even any parts of your application that were decided in your favor will be re-examined and potentially changed. The SSA reconsiders SSI applications in full – not just the portions with which you disagree.
After the reconsideration is complete, you will receive a second notice of determination outlining the SSA’s decision in your case. As you wait, you also may check the status of your appeal by creating or logging in to your personal my Social Security account.
Once you receive the SSA’s second decision, if you still are not satisfied, you may request a hearing before an administrative judge. Simply visit the SSA’s website and complete the Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge form. If necessary, you may have a representative complete the form for you, or an SSA representative can help you complete the form. You must make your hearing request within 60 days of receiving your second notice of determination to secure the next level of appeals review.
The SSA will provide notice of your hearing date, location, and issues to be decided at least 75 days before your hearing. You can request that your hearing be either virtual or in-person, but the SSA ultimately will set the parameters.
It’s very important that you and your representative attend your hearing date. If you have a conflict with your assigned date, please contact the SSA immediately to reschedule. In some cases, the SSA may pay your travel costs, especially if your hearing location is more than 75 miles away from your home.
During your hearing, an administrative judge will review evidence related to your application and also may call witnesses to provide additional context and information. Following the hearing, the administrative judge will issue a decision regarding the status of your application.
At this point, if you’d like to appeal the judge’s decision, you or your representative must request an additional review from an Appeals Council. You may do so by completing the Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order available on the SSA website within 60 days of receiving the judge’s decision. If the Appeals Council agrees to review your case, it may either issue a decision or refer your case to another judge – this could mean another hearing and a new decision.
You will receive notification from the Council outlining its decision and the reasons behind it.
If you remain unsatisfied with the overall decision regarding your case, your final appeal is to the federal U.S. District Court for your area. You or your representative may file a civil action in U.S. District Court within 60 days of receiving your notice of Appeals Council action. Please note that the SSA cannot help you file this action. If you reach this point in the appeals process, it especially behooves you to work with a trusted and qualified Social Security attorney who can guide you through the process.
America’s Supplemental Security Income program represents a key financial safety net for some of our most vulnerable citizens. If you think you may qualify for SSI benefits, it’s important to understand the full requirements for eligibility, along with the process involved and the rights of individual applicants.
You may want to consider working with a qualified Social Security lawyer. An experienced disability attorney knows the basics about the SSI program and can help you make informed decisions throughout the process.