Near the end of last year, around the holidays, I wrote a column that addressed what I called the 12 Myths of Social Security. It was supposed to be a takeoff on the “12 Days of Christmas” — get it?
Anyway, earlier this year, I wrote another column addressing what I said was an even bigger misconception about Social Security benefits (that I hadn’t included in the list of 12 Myths) — the fact that a person may not take reduced benefits on a spouse’s Social Security record and then later switch to full benefits on his or her own account. (But please note that this rule does not apply to widows and widowers.)
Also note that “reduced” is the key word in that rule. A person who waits until age 66 to start Social Security can take spousal benefits and then later, at age 70, for example, switch to full benefits on his or her own record and get a 32 percent delayed retirement bonus.
But recently it’s dawned on me that I left out the biggest Social Security misunderstanding of all from both of those columns. And that is the confusion people have between Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments.
Not a day goes by that I don’t get dozens of emails from people who tell me things like: “I am getting SSI benefits …” or “I am about to turn 62 and want to sign up for my SSI checks” when they mean to say “I am getting Social Security” or “I want to sign up for my Social Security checks …”
And the confusion isn’t just a matter of semantics. Social Security and Supplemental Security Income are two very different programs. Their only similarities are their names and the fact that they’re both managed by the Social Security Administration.
Most people know very well what Social Security is, and they have a general idea about how it operates. You work, you pay taxes, and then you either retire or become disabled and start collecting monthly benefits. Or you die, and your eligible survivors start getting monthly checks on your account. The benefits you or your dependents receive depend entirely on what you paid into the system. In a nutshell, the more you pay in, the more you get out.
But Supplemental Security Income is an entirely different animal. SSI is a welfare program paid for out of general tax revenues — not Social Security taxes. People qualify for monthly payments if they’re over 65 or disabled, and if they are poor. As a general rule, you must have less than $2,000 in liquid assets and less than about $850 per month in income. But that latter number is flexible and changes from one state to another, so you’d have to check with your local Social Security office if you’re wondering what the SSI eligibility limits are where you live.
And the amount of your SSI payment depends on such things as your other income, where you live, with whom you live, and other factors.
Many people who are getting Social Security disability benefits think (and constantly tell me) that they’re getting SSI. Here’s an example of how that can lead to all kinds of confusion.
I recently got an email from someone who said, “I am getting SSI disability. If I inherit $50,000 from my mother’s estate, will I lose my SSI checks?” I wrote back and told her that her SSI checks would stop as soon as she got the inheritance. (Again, SSI is a welfare program, and someone with $50,000 in the bank doesn’t qualify for welfare benefits.)
But a while later, she contacted me to tell me that her Social Security office told her she would not lose her monthly checks. She sort of scolded me for “lying” to her. But I didn’t lie. After questioning her some more, I learned that she was not getting “SSI disability,” as she told me. She was getting Social Security disability benefits. And because Social Security is not a welfare program, she could have inherited a million dollars and kept getting her monthly Social Security disability checks.
So please, dear readers, help me clear up this problem. Do not confuse any kind of Social Security benefit with any kind of SSI benefit. It’s not just a matter of apples and oranges. It’s like apples and baseballs — two very different things!
Q: I am getting SSI. I’m thinking of moving in with my sister, who lives in another state. If I move, will the amount of my SSI change?
A: I’m going to assume that you are indeed getting SSI checks, as you said. If that’s the case, the amount of your SSI check will very likely change when you move. It may even stop. There are several reasons why.
One is because SSI rates vary from one state to another. Another is because your payment amount depends on your living arrangements with your sister. If you simply move in with her and stay there rent-free, you get one payment rate. But if you move in with her and split the costs of rent, food, utilities, etc., then you get another payment rate. You’ll have to go over all of this with someone at your local Social Security office.
If, on the other hand, you meant to say that you’re getting Social Security checks, then nothing will change when you move. Your Social Security payment amount stays the same no matter where or with whom you live.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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