Americans are choosing disability benefits over marriage

What do you do when you're disabled and in need of life-sustaining medical treatment but you don't have enough recent work history to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits and your spouse's income is a little too high to allow you to qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) instead?

This is the quandary that far too many Americans are finding themselves in these days. The Social Security Disability system works like an insurance policy that has to be paid to eventually be collected. Therefore, many people who develop disabilities while they are young or abandon their careers in order to raise children at home are ineligible -- no matter how serious their illness.

However, SSI has strict income limitations that have to be met before someone who is disabled can receive benefits. A working spouse's income is partially "deemed" toward the disabled spouse. When that happens, not only does the disabled spouse lose any cash benefits from the program, but they also lose Medicaid entitlement.

For many, that entitlement is the only way they can afford the medical treatments that they need. Even if their spouse has insurance through work (and many do not), the disabled individual's co-pays are often prohibitively high. The SSI system is based on data that came from an era when one-income families were the norm.

As a result, some couples are choosing to divorce when one of them gets sick in order to gain eligibility for SSI benefits. Other people who are already entitled to benefits find themselves unable to marry for fear of losing those benefits. People with disabilities already struggle to maintain supportive social networks. They're often forced away from the people that love them the most by a restrictive system that obliges them to choose between marriage and health benefits.

Even divorce, however, might not help someone qualify for SSI benefits. The Social Security Administration has the power to "deem" a couple to be married for the purposes of their program -- even if the couple is divorced. If they live together and "hold out" as a married couple to others, they're married as far as Social Security is concerned.

If you're having trouble qualifying for SSI, it may be time to talk over your options with an attorney.

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