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Millennial Money: Navigating the SSI ‘marriage penalty’

Jennifer Updike and Lewis Fredette, of Auburn, New York, got engaged in December 2023. The couple, who are both on the autism spectrum, look forward to moving in together soon and tying the knot in a religious ceremony.

But because they both receive Supplemental Security Income — commonly referred to as SSI — they’ll lose about $300 in combined income monthly if they get married due to the resource limits that the National Council on Disability calls the “marriage penalty.” SSI resource limits would also restrict them from having more than $3,000 in combined savings, $1,000 less than they could have individually. They’re staying engaged indefinitely.

“Our entire decision (to get married) was based upon whether or not we would lose money and how much we would lose,” Fredette says.

“We wouldn’t have been able to support ourselves with that much money lost,” Updike adds.

Updike and Fredette aren’t alone. The Social Security Administration reported over 6.5 million SSI recipients over the age of 18 in 2022, the most recent data available. And a 2021 report of U.S. Census Bureau data from 2017 found that most working-age SSI recipients weren’t married or had never been married, a stark difference from nonrecipient working-age adults.

Though the Social Security Administration, also called the SSA, disincentivizes low-income and disabled couples from getting married, there are ways to tie the knot while minimizing losses.

WHY SSI HAS LIMITS FOR MARRIED COUPLES

“SSI is a needs-based program; It’s very similar to welfare,” says Steven R. Dolson, an attorney specializing in Social Security disability benefits at The Law Offices of Steven R. Dolson PLLC in Syracuse, New York. It differs from Social Security Disability Insurance, also called SSDI, which requires enough work history to pay a monthly benefit to people with disabilities who have lost their ability to work.

SSI doesn’t need a work history; it’s for people with disabilities who have little to no income or resources. But that’s not to say these benefits are easy to get.

“Social Security is trying to get people off the rolls constantly,” Dolson says. “The theory is to give the minimum amount to sustain them on a day-to-day basis.”

The program rules assume that married couples need less per person because they share expenses such as housing and transportation.

KNOW THE LIMITATIONS

Though you can get married and still collect SSI, there are a few considerations.

First, getting approved for SSI benefits automatically makes you eligible for Medicaid, the national public health care program. “If you exceed the (SSI) resource or income limits, that can knock you off your insurance,” Dolson says. “This can have a devastating effect on somebody who’s on SSI.”

Second, the SSA may count you as married if you act married — even if you’re not. ​​The SSA considers a couple “holding out as married” if they share a last name, refer to each other as spouses, file taxes jointly or own a home together. “Holding out” typically applies only in states that recognize common-law marriages, but for SSI specifically, the SSA says it can investigate how a couple presents themselves and change their benefits accordingly in any state.

MAXIMIZE YOUR EXEMPTIONS

According to the SSA, “resources” are anything that can readily be turned into cash, including money in a bank account, personal property and vehicles.

However, some exceptions don’t count toward the limit: the home you live in and the land it’s on, your household vehicle, household goods and things like wedding rings, burial plots, burial funds up to $1,500 and life insurance policies up to $1,500.

The SSA also allows exemptions of “property essential to self-support,” which is property, equipment and supplies — including buildings and vehicles — necessary for a trade, business or job. For people with disabilities, this also includes transportation services, medical devices, service animals and mobility aids.

You can also receive exempted funds through a supplemental (special) needs trust. With this type of trust, you or a third party can create an account to pay for most expenses (except food and shelter) without jeopardizing needs-based government benefits.

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF SAVINGS PROGRAMS

The SSA also allows SSI recipients to extend their resource limits with savings plans. You can set funds aside for a Plan to Achieve Self-Support, a written plan for a work goal, which won’t count toward SSI eligibility.

You can also save up to $100,000 in an Achieving a Better Life Experience, or ABLE, account through a state ABLE program to pay for qualified disability expenses, including education, housing, transportation and basic living expenses.

STILL, THERE ARE CHALLENGES

For many married SSI recipients, it’s still a struggle to make ends meet.

“(SSI’s) woefully outdated income and asset rules make it virtually impossible for people with disabilities to work, to save, or to marry,” U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a press release announcing bipartisan legislation to raise asset limits.

“I just wish more people were aware that (the resource limit) exists, because it’s not talked about enough,” Fredette says.

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This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. The content is for educational and informational purposes and does not constitute investment advice. Dalia Ramirez is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: dramirez@nerdwallet.com.

RELATED LINKS:

SSI vs. SSDI: Similarities and Differences https://bit.ly/nerdwallet-ssi-vs-ssdi

Senate Committee on Finance: Wyden, Brown, Cassidy Announce First Bipartisan, Bicameral Bill in Decades to Update Supplemental Security Income Program https://www.finance.senate.gov/chairmans-news/wyden-brown-cassidy-announce-first-bipartisan-bicameral-bill-in-decades-to-update-supplemental-security-income-program