Computing the SSI Benefit

Once you’ve shown that your disability keeps you from working, Social Security looks at the amount of money you have to pay for basic needs. SSI may be able to pay you a monthly check to help meet those needs.

The Cost of Basic Needs: Federal Benefit Rate

Social Security assumes that the cost of basic needs is the same for everybody in a similar living situation. This monthly dollar amount is called the Federal Benefit Rate, or FBR. This is the maximum SSI benefit amount for that living situation. The FBR is adjusted every year for the cost of living.

For 2014, the Federal Benefit Rate is $721 if you are a single person and $1,082 if you are married. This is the maximum SSI benefit amount. Your SSI benefit amount may be less, depending on your living situation (click here for more information).

Many states, including Minnesota, know that the cost of living is higher than the Federal Benefit Rate. For that reason, Minnesota makes an additional monthly payment to many people who get SSI. This program is called Minnesota Supplemental Aid (MSA).

The MSA grant, if you are living alone, is $81. This amount may be higher if you have certain special needs.

MSA is described in more detail here.

A typical person on SSI living alone in Minnesota will get:

That’s $802 in cash and $15 in SNAP.

Living Arrangements

If you live alone, the FBR (maximum SSI benefit) is $721. The FBR is different if you are an eligible couple, if you live in someone else’s household and you don’t pay the full costs of food and shelter, or if you live in an institution such as a hospital, nursing home or prison.

Eligible Couples
Social Security calls you part of an eligible couple if:
  • You are married; and
  • You are living with your spouse; and
  • Both you and your spouse are eligible for SSI

Note: If a man and woman live in the same household, act as if they are married, and present themselves to the community as being married, Social Security will consider them an eligible couple for SSI purposes. This is often referred to as "holding out."

Social Security figures that two can live cheaper than one, so the maximum SSI benefit for a couple is only 1 ½ times the individual maximum, or $1,082 in 2014.

If you’re married and living with your spouse, but your spouse is not eligible for SSI, then Social Security thinks that some of your spouse’s income must be available to help pay for basic needs; for more information, see the section on Spousal Deeming.

If you’re not married, are not living with your spouse, or are part of a same-sex partnership, Social Security treats you as separate people for the purposes of calculating a benefit.

Where Do You Live?
  • If you live in your own place, and pay for your own food and shelter, you can get up to $721, the maximum FBR. It doesn’t matter if you own or rent your place.
  • If you live in someone else’s household, but pay for your own food and shelter, you can still get up to the maximum FBR.
  • But if you live in someone else’s household, and somebody else is paying for some or all of your food and shelter costs, Social Security may reduce the maximum benefit you can get. This is called in-kind support and maintenance.

In-Kind Support and Maintenance

When somebody else gives you (or pays for) your food or shelter, that help is called in-kind support and maintenance (ISM). If you don’t pay your fair share for either food or rent, Social Security assumes you can get by with a smaller benefit.

Note: If the “somebody else” who gives you food and shelter is your spouse who lives with you, that help is not considered in-kind support and maintenance. Instead, some of your spouse’s income is “deemed” to be available to you; for more information, see the section on Spousal Deeming.

“Shelter” can include any of the normal costs of keeping a place to live: rent, mortgage payments, property taxes, heating fuel, gas, electricity, water, sewer service, and garbage collection.

Because it would be complicated for Social Security (and for you) to keep track of the amount of help you actually get, they assume that the in-kind support has a certain value.

Value of One-Third Reduction Rule (VTR)
This rule says that if:
  • You are living in somebody else’s household; and
  • Somebody in that household gives you both food and shelter;

…then the maximum amount of SSI you’re eligible for goes down by 1/3. This is called the Value of One-Third Reduction Rule, or VTR.

The VTR rule is all or nothing. It doesn’t matter how much you actually get in free food or free shelter; all that matters is that you get both for free.

Example: Ruggero lives in his uncle’s house and gets SSI. His uncle gives him three meals a day and charges Ruggero no rent. Because Ruggero is getting help with both his food and his rent from somebody living in the same house, the VTR rule applies. Ruggero’s SSI is reduced by 1/3. Full FBR for a single person is $721. The VTR reduction is 1/3 of that, or $240.33. Ruggero’s SSI benefit is $721 - $240.33 = $480.67.

In all other cases, if you don’t get both free food and shelter, but do get some in-kind support, then a different rule applies.

Presumed Maximum Value Rule (PMV)

This rule says that if:

  • Somebody gives you either food and shelter but not both;

…then Social Security begins by assuming that the value of the support you get is equal to a particular amount, the Presumed Maximum Value or PMV. The PMV is equal to 1/3 of the FBR plus $20. For 2014, the PMV is $260.33 for a single person and $380.67 for an eligible couple.

If the value of the support you get is actually less than the PMV, it’s up to you to show it.

Social Security excludes (ignores) the first $20 in unearned income you have. If the PMV rule applies, your SSI will be reduced by the PMV amount minus $20. If the actual support you get is worth less than the PMV, then your SSI will be reduced by the actual support amount minus $20 instead.

Example: Edgar lives in a house with roommates and is getting SSI. He pays for his own food, but his father pays Edgar’s share of the rent. Edgar’s share of the rent is $500. $500 is larger than the PMV amount ($260.33), so the PMV amount is used to calculate his SSI benefit. His benefit amount is $721 - ($260.33 - ­$20) = $480.67. ­

Example: Manon shares an apartment with a roommate and gets SSI. Her grandmother sends a check for $120 each month to the landlord to help with the rent. $120 is less than the PMV ($260.33). SSI had originally reduced her check using the PMV amount, to $480.67. But when Manon was able to show Social Security that the monthly support she got from her grandmother was less than that, her check was reduced only by $120 - $20 = $100. Her benefit amount is $721 - $100 = $621.

For all the adding and subtracting of $20, the total SSI payment a person gets is often the same if either the VTR or PMV applies.

Spousal Deeming

If you are married and your spouse is not also eligible for SSI, then Social Security assumes that some of your spouse’s income can be used to help pay for your basic needs. The process of deciding how your spouse’s income should affect your SSI benefit is called spousal deeming.

People Living in Medical Facilities

People who live in medical facilities like hospitals and nursing homes generally can’t collect a full SSI benefit.

  • If you are living in a medical facility where MA pays for more than half the cost of your care, your SSI benefit is at most $30/month. MSA might also pay a personal needs allowance in this situation.
  • If you live in a public facility and MA is not paying for more than half of your care, you may qualify for a different amount of SSI.
  • If your doctor says you will be in the facility for less than 90 days, and you can show that you need your SSI benefit to keep your home or living arrangement, you may continue to get your SSI check.

If you’re expecting to stay for less than 90 days, you need to get the doctor’s note and documentation about your need to Social Security right away. The facility’s admissions office can help you.

Homelessness

You don’t have to have a fixed address to collect an SSI benefit. If you’re homeless, you have the same access to SSI as anyone else. See Social Security’s Spotlight on Homelessness for more information.

SSI Maximum Benefit: Summary

Summary of Maximum Available SSI Benefits

Single Person

Eligible Couple

Full FBR

$721

$1,082

Getting help with living expenses

$480.67

$721.33

In a Medical Facility

$30

$60

Countable Income: Earned and Unearned

Some people on SSI have other sources of money. You could have some earnings from work, for example, or you could have other benefits coming in. SSI has rules about how much of that other income it expects you to spend on basic needs. The part of your monthly income that SSI expects to be spent on basic needs is called your countable income.

Not all of your income is countable income; there’s a calculation to figure that out. SSI deals with two kinds of income differently:

Earned and Unearned Income

Earned income is money you get from work you do. It includes salaries, wages, tips, bonuses, professional fees or other amounts you get in exchange for physical or mental work you actually do. Note that Social Security considers your gross earned income (wages before taxes are deducted) when figuring out your SSI benefit.

If you’re self-employed, you subtract your business expenses before reporting your earned income, the way you do when you file your taxes.

Unearned income is anything else: Money you get for which you do no work. Examples include disability benefits such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), short or long-term disability insurance, VA benefits, or Worker’s Compensation; income from a trust or investment; dividends, profits, or any other money you get from a source other than work.

The countable income calculation seems complicated, but here is the basic idea: Social Security figures that most of your unearned income is supposed to go toward basic expenses, so most of your unearned income goes into your countable income. When you’re working, Social Security assumes that about half of your earned income goes to basic expenses, so roughly half of your earnings are part of your countable income.

The Countable Income Calculation

Step 1: Countable Unearned Income

Start with your total unearned income. Subtract $20, the “general exclusion” that everyone gets. The remainder is your countable unearned income.

Note: When something is subtracted in the countable income calculation, the result is never allowed to be less than zero.

Countable Unearned Income:

Step 2: Countable Earned Income

Start with your total gross earned income (earnings before taxes are deducted). Subtract anything left over from that $20 general exclusion. Then subtract another $65, the “earned income exclusion”. Subtract any Impairment Related Work Expenses (more about these later). Take what’s left, and divide by two. The result is your countable earned income.

Countable Earned Income (Non-Blind SSI Recipients):

The calculation is different if you are blind according to SSI rules. If you are blind, we use Blind Work Expenses instead of Impairment Related Work Expenses (see SSI and Work for more details).

Countable Earned Income (Blind SSI Recipients):

Step 3: Countable Income

Add your countable unearned income to your countable earned income. Subtract any contribution to a PASS plan. The result is your total countable income.

Total Countable Income:

Step 4: Benefit Calculation

Start with the Federal Benefit Rate for your living situation. Subtract your countable income. The result is your SSI benefit.

SSI Benefit Calculation:

If your countable income is larger than the Federal Benefit Rate, your SSI benefit will be zero. In other words, Social Security thinks you are making enough money to pay for your own expenses.

Working students can take some of their income out of the countable income calculation; read more about the Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE) here.

Notice that every dollar of unearned income (above the first $20) reduces your SSI benefit by one dollar.

But because of that “divided-by-two” step, it takes two dollars of earned income (after the various subtractions) to reduce your SSI benefit by one dollar.

Example. Magda is collecting $320/month in SSDI, and working a few hours a month to earn $200.

Magda's SSI Benefit Calculation:

If you're not already on SSI, try the following tool to see how much your benefit might be.

Your SSI Benefit Calculation:

Getting SSI

The amount of your monthly SSI check depends on your

  • Earned income
  • Unearned income
  • Living arrangements

If any of these things change, even slightly, you must immediately:

  1. Report the change to your local Social Security office; and
  2. Report the change to your local county human services agency.

You must report any change in income or living situation within 10 days.

You must report any change to both Social Security and your local county human services agency.

It’s important to report changes right away to avoid an overpayment.

Overpayments

Social Security may decide that they have paid you more in benefits than you were supposed to get. This situation is called an overpayment. You’ll get a letter in which Social Security tells you how much money you must pay back.

It’s very important to deal with an overpayment notice right away. The overpayment letter will ask for the money to be returned within 30 days, but Social Security recognizes that people on SSI have very little income, so they are willing to work out a reasonable monthly payment plan with you. You should contact Social Security immediately to talk about your options.

The most common reason for overpayments is the failure to report changes in earnings. They can also happen if you don’t report changes in unearned income, living situation, or marriage status. You could also be overpaid because your resources grow beyond the SSI limit, or because you are no longer disabled – but you continue to get benefit checks. If you do not report changes, then the overpayment is your fault and you’ll have to pay the money back.

If you were overpaid but feel that it wasn’t your fault, and you can’t pay back the overpayment because you need the money to pay living expenses, you can ask for a waiver of the overpayment. You can get the waiver form by calling Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 and asking for form SSA-632. If the waiver is granted, you don’t have to repay the overpayment.

Social Security may make a mistake, or make a decision without knowing all the facts. If you think the amount of your overpayment is incorrect or that you do not have any overpayment, you have the right to appeal (click here to learn how to appeal). You should appeal right away if you’re going to. If you appeal within 10 days of the date the notice was sent, your checks will keep coming until Social Security decides on the appeal.

Redetermination

Every one to six years, Social Security will review your income, resources and living arrangements to make sure that you’re still eligible for SSI and that you’re getting the right benefit amount. This is called a redetermination.

The redetermination can take place

  • In person;
  • By phone; or
  • By mail.

It’s important that you respond right away and do everything Social Security needs you to do. If you don’t respond in a timely way, your SSI payments could be stopped. If you have trouble filling out a redetermination form, you can ask for help at local Social Security office.

In a redetermination, Social Security doesn’t ask about your medical condition. They will update your records with information about your income, assets, marital status, etc.

Medical Reviews

Social Security is required by law to review your condition periodically to make sure that you are still medically disabled. This process is called a medical continuing disability review. You will be notified when Social Security needs to do this review, and they may ask you for medical records or other information.

  • If you have been getting benefits for two years or more, Social Security will not do a medical review just because you go to work.
  • Social Security won’t do a medical review on your case as long as you’re using employment services through the Ticket to Work program and making Timely Progress.

Direct Deposit

Social Security encourages you to have your SSI benefit deposited directly into your bank account if possible.

Where am I? The Benefits Planning Query

If you have any questions about your Social Security benefits, or if you’re planning a life change that can affect your benefits, it helps to know exactly what your Social Security records look like.

You can get this information by ordering a free statement from Social Security called the Benefits Planning Query (BPQY). You can request your BPQY at your Social Security office, or by calling 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

If the BPQY is incorrect in any way, or you don’t understand what it’s saying, you should call Social Security and get it straightened out.