SSI and excess resources -- don't wait to call a lawyer!

January 9, 2017


Alex Ryley, Director

Elderly Project

Dear Friends,

Happy new year! We at the VOLS Elderly Project wish you all a prosperous and healthy 2017, as we look forward to another year of working together to help our city's vulnerable low-income elderly.

As you've no doubt noticed, over the past few months I haven't sent out as many e-mail blasts as usual.  This is mainly because I've been working on closing old matters in our case management system.  That task is finally complete (well, just about), and now that 2017 has begun, I will resume composing the periodic messages that I hope are helpful to you, our community partners.  So I'll get right to it by briefly recounting an encounter that I had with a senior this morning at our monthly Riverstone Senior Center clinic.  This senior lost her SSI benefits almost a year ago and is now in danger of eviction.

Eligibility for SSI: The "resource" rule

As you probably know, Supplemental Security Income, or "SSI", is a federal program that provides cash assistance to help aged, blind, and disabled people who have little or no income.  As is the case with some other entitlement programs (like Medicaid), a person may not have more than a certain amount of "resources" in order to qualify for the program.  Specifically, to receive SSI, an individual may not have more than $2,000 in "resources."  I won't delve into the definition of "resources" here, so suffice it to say that it's money and property.  (Click here for a list of "resources" that appears on the Social Security Administration -- "SSA" -- website.) If someone has more than $2,000 in resources, he or she cannot obtain SSI, and if the SSA learns that an SSI recipient has more than $2,000 in resources, the SSA will terminate the benefit, and the government may tell the recipient that he or she needs to repay the SSI benefits that were paid out improperly.

This is exactly what happened to an 80-year-old woman whom I met this morning.  She explained that she had been receiving SSI for many years, but about a year ago she lost the benefit because the SSA had discovered that she owned a house in another country. (The SSA counts as a "resource" any piece of property that is not the home that you live in.) Rather than contact a lawyer for assistance, this lady met with reps at the SSA a couple of times and then traveled back to her home country to transfer the property out of her name and into that of her children there.  She showed me recent letters from the SSA saying not only that she owes thousands of dollars to the SSA for benefits they say she shouldn't have gotten, but also that because she transferred the property, she will be ineligible for SSI for a period of time in the future! Two pieces of very bad news.

Not all "resources" are created equal

From my perspective, however, the worst news for this woman was that she had waited almost a year to speak with a lawyer -- who could have told her the good news.  The good news is that there is a special SSI rule that says that a piece of property is not a resource if the owner does not have the power to sell it.  (Click here for more on this rule.)  According to this woman, the property does have value, but because of the way that she owned it, she was unable to sell it.  So now it will be the job of a lawyer at one of the legal services offices to which I referred her to help her to convince the SSA that she could not sell but instead could only transfer the property, and thus that the usual resource and transfer penalties should not apply to her.

So the moral of the story is -- if an SSI recipient loses her benefits, she should seek legal advice right away! Had the woman I met this morning done so last February, her situation would likely have been resolved by now.  Instead, she has had no income for almost a year -- and probably will remain off of SSI for at least several more months.

As always, if you have a client with a legal problem, please feel free to direct him or her to one of our many free legal advice clinics, the schedule for which you can obtain by clicking here.  At VOLS we are unable to offer representation in SSI cases (as I did offer when I worked at The Legal Aid Society), but at a legal clinic I can analyze a senior's legal issue and refer her directly to the free legal services offices that I know can handle her particular type of problem.

All the best,