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Couple considers divorce to maintain livable SSI benefits

A man who became disabled in 2000 after he broke his back in three places recently learned that his Supplemental Security Income benefits will be cut by $700 a month because his wife was finally able to find employment. Though he is more than willing to work, he is considered fully disabled from work, considering his condition and with his medications.

He is ineligible for Social Security Disability Insurance because he one of the eligibility requirements is to have worked for a certain period of time in the past and paid into the Social Security program, but he has been unable to work for about 10 years and made no income during that time.

However, he was still eligible for SSI, a separate program intended to help low-income people who are so disabled they cannot work pay for basic needs including food, clothing, and housing.

In both programs, the individual must prove that they are disabled. However, SSDI is based upon how much work a person has done, whereas SSI is based upon need, assets and income. This means that in determining whether someone qualifies for SSI and the level of benefits they will receive, the Social Security Administration will consider many factors, including a spouse's income.

In this case, this man's SSI benefits have been reduced because his spouse recently got a job. Faced with the realization that more income from work will be offset by less income from SSI, some people simply decide it's easier not to work. This couple, in contrast, believes that would be wrong. However, they feel forced to consider getting a divorce in order to separate her income from his eligibility for SSI coverage.

In the meantime, this couple has appealed the SSA's decision to reduce the SSI benefits. The strategy of divorcing to keep disability benefit may seem extreme, but it is difficult to know how desperate low-income individuals and couples may feel as they try to make ends meet. California residents who are having difficulty obtaining Social Security disability benefits may want to seek the advice of an experienced attorney who can advise them on all of their options. 

Source: The Journal-Standard, "Divorcing to survive: Couple struggles in tough economy," April 21, 2012

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