Being married can have a major impact on what you receive in Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a Social Security-administered benefit for low-income older and disabled people, in two important ways:
- If you and your spouse both qualify for SSI, you are subject to a maximum couple’s benefit, which is less than the sum of two individual benefits.
- If you are applying for or receiving SSI and your spouse is not, Social Security can consider his or her income in determining your eligibility or payment amount, a process called “deeming.”
Neither marital status nor a spouse’s earnings affect Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), another benefit the Social Security Administration (SSA) provides for people unable to work due to a serious health issue. SSDI eligibility and payment amounts are based only on your own work history and medical condition.
But SSI is based in large part on financial need. Life changes that affect your household finances, such as getting married or a working spouse getting a raise, can result in reduction or termination of SSI benefits. Here’s how.
Eligible couples and the ‘marriage penalty’
SSI provides monthly payments to people who are disabled, blind or age 65 and over and in financial straits. The maximum federal benefit is set by the SSA and adjusted annually for inflation. It can be reduced if a recipient earns income from work or gets money from other sources such as pensions, government programs or relatives.
In 2022, this maximum benefit is $841 a month. However, if two beneficiaries are married to each other, they are considered an eligible couple and don’t get their own separate benefits. The government applies a couple’s rate of $1,261 a month — 1.5 times the individual benefit. Their combined income is factored into determining the joint payment.
The SSA also sets a ceiling on the amount of financial assets you can own — such as savings, investments and property other than the home you live in — and still qualify for SSI. For an individual, the cap is $2,000; for a couple, $3,000 combined.
According to a 2003 Social Security issue paper, the rationale for paying eligible spouses comparatively less than they’d get as singles is that by sharing a home and financial resources, a couple can live more economically than two people living alone.
Disability-rights advocates and other critics say this provision discriminates against SSI recipients and applicants who are married or wish to wed. President Biden has called for eliminating the so-called “marriage penalty” by making the SSI couple’s rate equal to two individual benefits, and AARP has endorsed congressional legislation that would do so.
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Deemed income and resources
If you are applying for or receiving SSI and your spouse is not, Social Security may consider his or her income in determining your benefit eligibility and amount. That’s because the SSA assumes some portion of income a spouse brings into the household is available to you and goes toward meeting your needs.
Whether or how much of a spouse’s income can be “deemed,” or applied to your SSI eligibility, is determined by a complex computation. Social Security discounts some earnings from the calculation, and there can be additional deductions if you have children living with you.
If what remains of your spouse’s monthly income after these deductions is equal to or less than the difference between the individual and couple’s maximum benefit — in 2022, that's $420 — there’s no deeming. Your SSI is unaffected.
However, if the spouse’s monthly “countable” income is more than $420, Social Security will treat you as if you were an eligible couple and consider both your income and your partner’s in figuring your benefit. That could significantly reduce your payment or disqualify you from receiving any SSI.
Keep in mind
- Social Security applies the $3,000 resource limit to married couples even if only one is SSI-eligible.
- Life events that can affect your SSI status, including a change in marital status or your spouse’s income, must be reported to the SSA no later than 10 days after the end of the month in which the change took place.
- Deeming applies only to married couples who are living together. There is no benefit impact from a spouse’s income if you are separated.
- The SSA may also apply deeming in calculating benefits for an SSI recipient who is under age 18 and lives with a parent or is an immigrant who has a U.S. sponsor. The rules for determining the benefit impact in these situations differ from those for married couples.
Updated December 29, 2021