Being married seems to be what communities encourage people to do. Unfortunately, many government programs seem to create the opposite effect. Married couples suffer the marriage penalty in the form of taxes, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries receive less in benefits than if they were two single people living with each other. Unfortunately, the answer to this conundrum is not clearly communicated, and requires a bit of research.
SSI was created to be a last-resort financial support for seniors who could no longer work and for those with approved disabilities who also could not physically be employed. As a result, various requirements are put into the system to restrict benefits when other income or assets are available to a recipient. Typical of benefit programs, the SSI review also considers assets and financial help of anyone who lives closely with the recipient to make sure that assistance is counted as well. Not surprisingly, married couples sometimes find themselves being a detriment to each other in their respective SSI benefit calculations.
Why the Negative Treatment of Married Couples?
There is no intentional punishment of married people. Instead, the effect on SSI benefits is a mathematical issue. If you have two individuals who are married, they are seen as a joint household under SSI rules. Program rules in turn basically allow a benefit that is approximately 25% less than if they were two unmarried individuals living together.
The SSI Marriage Logic
The reduced SSI benefit amounts for married couples is due to the process of means-testing which, in short, argues that a married household income should be combined since they are sharing their assets and living at a cost less than two separate people. The Social Security Administration points out this cooperative living together allows married couples to be financially better off, ergo less of a need for benefits.
Again, the SSI program is fundamentally designed to help the needy. It is assumed that married couples can use economies of scale when purchasing and are more supportive of each other, thus resulting in higher incomes.
The Hard Facts
Married couples who divorce and individuals living together receive 100 percent of their SSI benefits. Thus, on a benefits-basis alone, unmarried recipients are better off.
If you have disability benefits currently, upon marriage you will continue to receive them.
If you receive benefits via your spouse, your own benefits will only stay at 100 percent if you are divorced by the time you are 62 or older and your marriage lasted less than 10 years total.
If you are a disabled widow or receive widow’s benefits, you will still receive your SSI benefits if you remarry if you are 50 years or older. If younger, you will see a reduction.
Other SSI benefits in general will be reduced or eliminated when you are married and will only continue again when your marriage ends.
In the End
A final decision regarding maintaining a marriage or dissolving it for the purposes of increasing SSI benefits is really a personal decision a couple needs to make on their own. Marriage, taken seriously, is a personal commitment made, regardless of whether the future is good or bad. Any negation of a marriage that lasts into your senior years when you are eligible for SSI benefits should be seriously thought through before proceeding.
Furthermore, keep in mind the average lifespan for men is shorter than for women. Thus, the need to decide on ending a marriage for retirement solvency may be a moot point altogether by the time it becomes relevant.
- “What You Need to Know When You Get Social Security Disability Benefits,” Social Security Online, SSA Publication No. 05-10153, ICN 480165, November 2008.
- “Treatment of Married Couples in the SSI Program,” Social Security, Issue Paper, No. 2003-01, December 2003.
- “Marriage and Social Security Benefits,” Emily Brandon, US News, January 9, 2008.