If you are considering saying “I do” and currently receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, or any other disability-related benefits, getting married could impact your benefits. Unfortunately, under current Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare rules, getting married is not always financially or medically practical for their recipients.
Many programs providing benefits to persons with disabilities were created decades ago under assumptions that are no longer compatible with today’s world. In some situations, the creators of these programs believed a disabled individual would not be able to marry or, if they did, the spouse should become responsible for this person’s needs. As such, many programs have rules that a person receiving disability benefits may no longer qualify for benefits if they marry a person who is not disabled.
Each program is slightly different. However, in general, the concept is that once you are married, your spouse’s income and assets become available to you. Often, once your spouse’s financials are added to the picture, you may exceed resource limits that will disqualify you for benefits. This can have significant impact on your access to health care.
For example, eligibility for SSI in most states qualifies a person for Medicaid. Medicaid often covers health care and services not covered by other insurances, such as health or personal care aides, transportation to doctor appointments, and much more. A loss of Medicaid can be a significant blow, and you may not be able to cover the costs of services you need, even with a dual income.
When two disabled individuals marry, they will receive one combined benefit from the Social Security Administration (SSA) that is 25 percent less than what they would receive if living together unmarried. This is because of an antiquated belief that a couple can live on less income by sharing a home and other expenses.
So, before you walk down the aisle, here are some questions you should discuss with your special needs attorney.
- Will my spouse’s income or assets affect my benefits?
Yes, this can affect your benefits. For example, to qualify for SSDI, you must earn less than $1,350 monthly if you are not blind, and less than $794 per month to qualify for SSI. You may no longer qualify if you get married and your spouse’s income exceeds these limits. The same is true for any limitations on countable resources for programs such as SSI. A recipient must not have more than $2,000 in assets as an individual or $3,000 in assets as a couple.
- What if I just want to live with my partner, but not get married?
Many people may prefer not to get married and instead live together. Yet for some programs, such as SSI, this can still lead to a reduction or loss of benefits. The SSA specifically states: “The [Social Security Act] … requires that if a man and a woman are found to be “holding out”— that is, presenting themselves to the community as husband and wife — they should be considered married for purposes of the SSI program.”
It is not guaranteed the SSA will enforce this position if you decide to cohabitate with your partner or have an unofficial ceremony to recognize your union. However, if they seek to treat you as a married couple, you may find yourself subject to completing an SSA questionnaire, and producing information about bills, mail, and your housing arrangements in order to keep your benefits.
- Is it likely these limitations will change anytime soon?
Recent developments indicate such “marriage penalties” imposed on people with disabilities may undergo reform. For example, the newly introduced Marriage Equality for Disabled Adults Act would eliminate any requirements that disabled adult children must remain unmarried to receive lifetime benefits and health care through Social Security.
In addition, in 2021, the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. If passed, this law would eliminate the marriage penalty by increasing the SSI couple benefit rate to twice the individual rate. So, where both parties to a marriage are disabled, they would get no less than what they previously received, among other changes.
Other benefits could also come from this law, such as an increase in the benefit rates to align with the federal poverty calculations, which are updated more frequently and allow people with disabilities to earn up to $416 per month without losing their SSI benefits.
- Are there alternatives to marriage or other ways my partner and I can unify our lives?
You can engage in planning measures to help bring cohesiveness to your and your partner’s life. A good start is to prepare a will and advance directives. This will allow you to avoid the state deciding what happens to your estate when you pass and perhaps provide in some way for your significant other upon your death.
If you become hospitalized or incapacitated, you can give your partner the ability to be involved in your health care and other life decisions by executing a health care proxy, power of attorney, or living will.
In addition, in some areas, you may be able to have a unification or other ceremony without it affecting the community services you receive through your state’s Medicaid program. Many states have revised their programs’ rules to allow flexibility regarding these issues.
If you currently receive disability benefits and are considering getting married, it is best to speak with a qualified special needs attorney about how this may impact you.
The information provided is not intended to be legal or tax advice and does not constitute any attorney/client relationship. You should consult with an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation.
Ms. Melancon is an attorney with Legacy Estate & Elder Law of Louisiana, LLC with offices in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lake Charles, LA. The primary focus of her practice is estate planning, probate, special needs planning, and elder law. For more information or to attend an upcoming estate planning seminar, call her office at (225) 744-0027.