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May '16

Shared Home Ownership

Ben Spec in Zambia, Southern Africa

Hello again! I’ve had the opportunity of a lifetime to travel to Zambia, in southern Africa to go on a safari tour. So, here I am, ready for a day walk through the South Luangwa Valley. What a delight to see these wild animals in their natural habitat! Fortunately for me, the base camp has wi-fi, so I can get some work done, answering your questions!

Dear Ben,

I’m disabled and SSI has been my only income for three years. I live with my brother in a house that he and I got when our mother died 10 years ago. We jointly own it free and clear; it’s probably worth around $75,000 now. I want to move out and rent a small place to live by myself. My brother would still live here and I’d still own my half share of it. But a friend of mine told me that if I do that I’d lose my SSI? Is that true?

Withee, WI


It is possible that you would lose eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) but not necessarily.

To be eligible for SSI, the value of a person’s countable resources must not exceed a certain level at the beginning of a month. For an individual such as you, the level is $2,000 (for a couple it’s $3,000). Certain resources do not count toward the limit including a home which serves as a person’s principle place of residence. Once you live elsewhere, your house may no longer be an excluded resource.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) would consider the house to be jointly owned property with its equity value being counted toward the resource limit. Although state laws about jointly owned property vary, SSA normally assumes that each owner of shared property owns only his or her fractional interest which can be sold. SSA divides the total equity value of the property among all of the owners in direct proportion to the ownership share held by each owner (one-half in your case) and then counts that toward the resource limit. So, based on what you said, your portion of the equity value of the house would make you ineligible for SSI for each month you still have ownership and are not residing there. (POMS SI 01110.510)

However, there is an exception to this rule that might apply in your situation. The value of an SSI recipient’s ownership interest in jointly owned real property can be excluded as a resource for as long as sale of the property would cause undue hardship to a co-owner (your brother). Undue hardship exists if the co-owner 1) uses the property as his or her principal place of residence, 2) would have to move if the property were sold, and 3) has no other readily available housing (that is, housing that is affordable or has needed physical modifications). (POMS SI 01130.130)

Contact your local SSA office for more information and be sure to let them know if you move.

Best wishes whatever you decide to do. Now, I’d better catch up with my group. I’d hate to get lost out here. Until next time…


Apr '15

Automatic Earnings Reappraisal Operation (AERO)

Ben Spec at La Tour Eiffel, in Paris France

Bonjour! Here I am in the City of Light, Paris, France. There is so much to see and do here, with the museums, monuments, and cathedrals, but I like to soak up the café scene, sipping my café au lait and enjoying a very tasty chocolat crepe. Checking my email, I see I have a question about automatic earnings.

Dear Ben,
About seven years ago I became disabled and had to stop working. I had worked pretty steadily over the years so I qualified for Social Security disability insurance benefits. I do not get SSI. A couple years ago I tried working again and have been able to keep at it. I can’t work as much as I used to due to my condition so I never make more than $1,000 a month. (I’ve told SSA all about this.) The extra money helps out. Someone told me that this work I’ve been doing since I started getting benefits would also increase my benefit amount. Is that true?

Glenbeulah, WI

Dear Aidan,
Returning to work and having earnings after Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) start may possibly increase a beneficiary’s monthly payment amount, depending on the person’s work earnings history before benefits started.

The initial amount of a beneficiary’s DIB payment is based on an average of his/her own lifetime earnings up to the point benefits start. If you (or any DIB beneficiary) had low or no earnings in years prior to receiving benefits, then those years can be replaced by earnings in recent years if they are higher. Using these higher earnings years in the calculation increases your lifetime average earnings and consequently your ongoing benefit amount. Normally, the increase is just a few dollars since computation is based on the average of several years’ earnings. So, depending on your lifetime work history, your recent earnings may increase your benefit amount.

You need to do nothing to initiate this possible increase. Every year the Social Security Administration (SSA) computer system automatically screens the earnings records of all beneficiaries looking for work earnings in the previous year in order to recalculate a beneficiary’s benefit amount. This process is called the Automatic Earnings Reappraisal Operation (AERO). This automatic re-computation never decreases a person’s benefits but can increase them if the past year’s earnings were higher, than the earnings from a year used in the person’s original benefit computation or last AERO. (POMS RS 00605.560)

An increased DIB benefit based on an AERO is effective in the January following the year in which the earnings were paid. For example, a benefit increase resulting from an automatic re-computation to include 2013 earnings will be paid effective January 2014 onward. The AERO process can take several months, so that in this example, the beneficiary would start receiving the increased benefit and the payment of the amount due since January, in the form of a lump sum later in 2014.

The locals tell me that the Tuilleries Gardens are beautiful this time of year… it is after all… April in Paris! Until next time, au revoir!


Jan '15

Possibility of Working in Self-Employment

Ben Spec in Ribeira Grande, Sao Miguel Island, Azores

I don’t know about you, but I had to escape the Wisconsin winter and the minus degree wind chills. Being an adventurous guy, I found myself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, among the nine breathtaking islands of the Azores. If you like waterfalls and swimming with dolphins, this is the place to be!

Checking my emails, I see I have an interesting question from Roy.

Dear Ben,
I receive SSDI and have for several years, since I became disabled and couldn’t work my regular job in construction. I have been making fishing lures and rods as a hobby since I was a kid; I give them to friends and family members as gifts. I now want to try selling them for profit and have already talked to an employment counselor about the business side, and it looks doable. However, I’m not sure about trying it mainly because I’m afraid that Social Security will lower and even stop my benefits (and my Medicare) if I work. If the business doesn’t work out for me, I’ll no longer have any income. What will happen to my benefits if I try this?

Dale, WI

Dear Roy,
I understand you are hesitant about beginning your enterprise due to the fear of losing your benefits. Over the years, I have worked with disability beneficiaries who had similar fears yet were able to successfully achieve their work goals (including self employment).

An important factor in their success was Social Security’s disability benefit programs that have work incentives or supports that allow a beneficiary like you to try working without having your benefits or Medicare coverage end.

For example, you have a nine month trial work period to try working, earn any amount, and still receive full benefits for at least a year after starting work. If your net earnings from self employment (NESE) never become substantial, your benefits can continue indefinitely as long as you are still disabled. If your earnings are substantial after a year, your benefits will stop. For any months that your earnings are not substantial within 36 months after the end of your Trial Work Period (TWP), you can again receive benefits. You also have five years to restart your benefits without a new application. And, your Medicare can continue all this time and possibly even longer.

Also, when Social Security looks at your net earnings to decide if they are substantial, they will deduct expenses that you have paid for certain services and items that you need to work. Similarly, Social Security may deduct the cost of contributions from others to your business effort.

You should contact a benefits specialist who can provide you with more detailed information about work incentives and returning to work. As a Social Security disability beneficiary, you can receive benefit counseling for free from a Community Work Incentive Counselor (CWIC) through the Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) program. Or, you may receive assistance from a work incentive benefits counselor through organizations like your state Vocational Rehabilitation agency. Here are the phone numbers that you can call and the website you can check to find the WIPA program provider in your area: 1-866-968-7824 (voice) and 1-866-833-2967 (TTY), www.chooseworkttw.net/findhelp.

Also, remember to contact the Social Security Administration to keep them updated, both when you start working and after: 1-800-772-1213.

I’m going to do some hiking around Ribeira Grande, which is part of Sao Miguel island. Due to volcanic geology, the landscape is diverse with deep ravines, mineral hot springs, foothills and mountains, in addition to the many beaches.


Oct '14

Working and Applying for Disability Benefits

Ben Spec in Matamata, New Zealand

Good morning young Hobbits! I am at a Hobbiton where they filmed parts of the Lord of the Rings movies here in Matamata, New Zealand. Even though I still feel hungry even after my second breakfast, I’ll answer a question from Franklin.

Dear Ben,

I have a chronic condition that has gotten worse over the years. But, I have forced myself to keep working as much as I can. Because of my condition, I’ve had to cut down my work hours the last couple of years so my pay has been only a few hundred dollars a month. I’ve thought about applying for Social Security disability, but I heard that you can’t if you’re working. What can I do?

Hyde, WI


That is a common misconception. A person can apply for and possibly receive either Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability payments while still working.

To be eligible the person must:

  • have a disability and have enough work credits for SSDI, or
  • meet certain income and resource requirements for SSI.

Also, if the Social Security Administration decides that the person’s current work is substantial, the application for benefits will be denied regardless of the severity of the disability.

People are considered to have a disability for Social Security benefits if they have a mental or physical condition that prevents them from engaging in substantial work activity and the condition has lasted or is expected to last twelve months or end in death. So, if someone is doing substantial work despite having a disability, that person is not eligible for Social Security disability benefits.

The key factor in determining if a person’s work is substantial, is the extent and value of the work activity. What Social Security considers substantial work is usually reflected by the amount of a person’s work earnings.

In 2014, the amount of work earnings that Social Security considers substantial is monthly gross wages of $1,070; the amount is $1,800 for blind individuals applying for SSDI (under the SSI program, the SGA test is not applicable to those who are blind.) The SGA amount normally increases a few dollars every year. So, if a person is earning above this set amount when applying for benefits, he or she is engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA) and will not be entitled to disability benefits.

Social Security does take into account certain special conditions and circumstances that a person is working under and so may not count your entire work earnings in an SGA evaluation. For example, if you are being paid a monthly wage that exceeds the SGA amount but is not actually earning the full amount (that is, the employer is paying the person more than the value of his or her services or providing special help), Social Security will disregard whatever portion of the wages that the person is not really earning in deciding if the work is SGA.

Based on what you said, you should contact Social Security about filing an application for disability benefits.

The next tour is about to start, so off I go to see some Hobbit Holes and The Green Dragon Inn! Until my next adventure…


Jul '14

Social Security Grandchild Benefits

Ben visiting the Grand Canyon

Hi everyone, I am in Arizona marveling at one of the natural wonders of the world, The Grand Canyon! The arid climate makes for a very dry visit but it’s supposed to be a cool tonight with lows in the high 40s or low 50s! In addition to the great hiking and breathtaking views, this is a great place to visit for spotting animals. Due to its size there is a vast habitat for wildlife and plants making it a valuable wildlife preserve.

Dear Ben,
A friend of mine has custody of and supports her grandson who is 9 years-old. Someone told me a child can get Social Security benefits based on a grandparent’s earnings if the child lives with the grandparent. Is that true?

Matt, Dodgeville, WI

Dear Matt,
This is a great question! Thanks for asking it. A child may receive Social Security benefits on the work record of a grandparent in certain situations.

There are more qualifications that have to be met for grandchild benefits than for regular child benefits including:

  • A child’s grandparent must be receiving Social Security Retirement Insurance Benefits (RIB), Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), or be deceased (and have earned a certain number of work credits).
  • Next, the grandchild’s natural or adoptive parents must be deceased or disabled at the point the grandparent became entitled to Social Security benefits or died.
  • The grandchild must be dependent on the grandparent, which means living with and receiving at least one-half support from the grandparent for the year before the grandparent became entitled to retirement or disability benefits or died.
  • Source: POMS GN 00306.235

In Cases of Grandparent Adoption…
A grandchild could also become entitled on a grandparent’s record if the grandparent legally adopts the grandchild. For Social Security purposes, the grandchild would be considered a child of the grandparent so that the less restrictive qualifications for regular child benefits would apply.

Child Benefits Based on Absent or Deceased Parent’s Work Record
Also, a child living in the custody of a grandparent could possibly receive regular Social Security child benefits based on an absent or deceased parent’s work record. This could happen if a parent is entitled to Social Security disability or retirement benefits on their own record, or if a parent is deceased and had earned enough work credits.

Your friend should contact the Social Security Administration and check on all these possibilities.

I’m at the south rim of the canyon and I think I see some movement and activity just below me. It looks like a flock of bighorn sheep so I’m going to check this out!


Jun '14

ADA and SSDI Benefits

Ben at Sao Paulo, Brazil

Hello again! I decided to stay in Brazil to take part of the World Cup festivities. Cheering for the host country in the World Cup is an amazing experience! Needing a few moments of quiet, I found a little street corner cafe, so I’ll sip my Brazilian coffee and check my emails.

Dear Ben,

I’m getting SSDI benefits from Social Security. Can I still file an ADA claim against an employer who let me go without providing reasonable accommodations on my job?

Sarah, Salem, WI

Hi Sarah,
I can give you general information about the relationship between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), but since this can be a complicated issue, you should consult with an ADA specialist to see how it applies in your particular case. For more information you may contact the Great Lakes ADA Center or the ADA Information Line.

When the ADA was passed in 1990, it was thought that SSDI applicants or beneficiaries could not file a lawsuit under the ADA against an employer for discrimination based on a disabling condition. The assumption was that since an application for SSDI is an assertion of being unable to do substantial work due to a disabling condition, an employer could not be held liable for withholding work from a person receiving or applying for SSDI.

However, the Supreme Court in 1999 ruled that an application for SSDI benefits does not necessarily invalidate or cancel out an ADA lawsuit. An application for (or receipt of) SSDI benefits does not automatically bar an employee with a disability from seeking redress under the ADA. Reasonable circumstances can exist in which the two are legally compatible. However, an ADA plaintiff must explain to the court any apparent contradiction when pursuing a claim under the ADA.

The Supreme Court noted that the ADA focuses on reasonable accommodations while SSDI focuses on the inability to work and is not about reasonable accommodations. The contention in an SSDI application that one is unable to work due to a disability is not the same as saying that one could not work if reasonably accommodated.

So, if you’re pursuing litigation against an employer under the ADA, you can still apply for and receive SSDI. However, you will need to explain to the presiding judge in the ADA action how you can be entitled to SSDI while at the same time be suing an employer for termination or discrimination in employment.

Coffee’s finished, so it’s time to get into the stadium and enjoy another match! Can you guess where I’m headed next? Stay tuned.


May '14

Becoming One’s Own Payee

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

I’m still in Brazil. It has been an incredible week watching the soccer teams practice. But soon, I must move on to another country to explore. But first, I’ll answer this question sent to me by Tim.

Dear Ben,

My sister has been getting my monthly Social Security disability check for the last several years because she’s my rep payee. It can be inconvenient and often a problem for me to get the money I need. I’m not sure why they ever sent my checks to my sister; I know I can handle my own money alright. Is there any way I could start having my checks come directly to my bank account?

Hortonville, WI

Dear Tim,

The Social Security Administration (SSA) must have decided at some point that it was in your best interest for your sister to receive and manage your disability benefits. When a beneficiary is legally incompetent or under age 15, Social Security law and regulations require that a beneficiary have a representative payee. Also, Social Security will appoint a representative payee when a beneficiary is found to be incapable of handling his or her own payments. However, a beneficiary may become his or her own payee when circumstances change, which may be the case in your situation.

The Social Security policy is that an adult beneficiary who is legally competent is capable of managing (or directing someone else to manage) his or her benefits and so can be his or her own payee, unless there are indicators or evidence to the contrary. (POMS GN00502.001)

For you to become your own payee, you will need to make a formal request with Social Security. A Social Security representative will then talk to you and re-evaluate your situation by obtaining current evidence of your capability. Such evidence may be a signed statement from a physician (or other medical professional) or lay evidence which can include Social Security’s own observations and statements from others (such as relatives, friends, neighbors, or landlords) who are in a position to know your ability to manage or direct the management of your funds.

If you were judged to be legally incompetent, a certified copy of the court order restoring your rights is needed. After the re-evaluation, Social Security decides if you should be your own payee. If Social Security determines that you still need a rep payee, you may appeal the decision.

Keep these questions coming in, and where ever I am traveling, I’ll check in from time to time.


May '14


Ben Spec in Brazil


Hi everyone, the World Cup is around the corner so I decided to come to Rio de Janeiro to be part of the festivities and to show off some of my soccer moves. But, before I watch my favorite teams practice, I’ll take a break to answer a reader’s question.

Dear Ben,
Social Security just sent me a letter that says they overpaid me a couple hundred dollars in SSI because of some work I did. I disagree with them; I know that I didn’t earn as much as they say I did. I was wondering if there is anything I can do about it.

Meadow Valley, WI


Yes, you can appeal, which is a request that the Social Security Administration (SSA) review and change its decision. People who disagree with a decision that SSA makes about their Title II benefits (including Social Security Disability Insurance or SSDI) or Title XVI payments (Supplemental Security Income or SSI) may usually make such a request. A person has the right to appeal an SSA decision that involves initial entitlement to benefits, continuous entitlement, overpayments, amount of benefits, and various other issues.

Whenever Social Security makes a decision that affects an applicant for benefits or a beneficiary, it sends a notice to the person with the decision, rationale, and information about the person’s right to appeal the decision.

Social Security has forms for requesting an appeal which must be made within 60 days of the date on their notice of decision (65 days when including mail time). The time limit for filing an appeal can be extended if the requestor shows good cause for not appealing on time. In looking at possible good cause for late filing, Social Security considers the requester’s circumstances, potential for misunderstanding, and physical, mental, educational, and linguistic limitations. Examples of possible reasons for good cause include a serious illness that prevented contact with Social Security, or a death or serious illness in the person’s immediate family.

The Social Security appeal process has four possible levels that are requested in the following order: Reconsideration, Hearing, Appeals Council Review, and Judicial Review (Federal District Court). If an appeal is turned down at one step, a person may move to the next step to appeal. Social Security sends a separate notice after the decision at each level of appeal.

A person may have an attorney or other qualified person act as his or her representative in the appeal process. To do this, the person must file a signed appointment of representation with Social Security. An appointed representative may perform multiple tasks on behalf of the claimant:

  • obtain information about the case from SSA,
  • examine any documents that the claimant would have access to,
  • appear at any interview or hearing either alone or with the person,
  • submit evidence,
  • be informed of all additional evidence needed to support the claim,
  • make statements, and
  • be notified of any decision made in the case.

At any time during the appeal process, the person can and should submit to Social Security any new material evidence that could affect Social Security’s decision.

So you should contact Social Security as soon as possible to start your appeal.

I’ll be hanging around the Rio area for another week, so check in next week to see what questions come my way. Gooaalllll!


Apr '14

Combination Impairments


Who knew that Ifaty Beach would be so sunny? I’m in Toliara, Madagascar enjoying some rays on one of the many beautiful beaches in this amazing country. But, as is customary, I’m taking a break to answer your questions.

Dear Ben,

I’ve had problems with arthritis for a few years. I’ve been taking medications that used to make working fulltime possible. Then several months ago, I had to leave my job for several reasons. The pain made it harder to do my job, and the pressure of trying to do my work started to make me tense and moody, and I just couldn’t concentrate and was confused at times. I took a lot of sick days and finally had to leave. I’m to the point where I don’t even want to go out anymore.

I’ve heard that arthritis is not enough to get Social Security disability, so I doubt I would be approved if I apply. What do you think?

Upson, WI

Dear Morgan,

Based on what you said, you should contact SSA and apply for disability benefits.

Even if you don’t qualify for disability based on your arthritis alone, SSA may still find you disabled. Often when a person has a single severe medical condition, SSA will find the person disabled based on that one impairment. But a person may also qualify for disability benefits based on a combination of disabling medical conditions. SSA considers how the combined effects of all impairments limit a person’s ability to work and if these limitations have lasted or are expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months.

So when you apply, you need to provide in detail, all information about any impairment you have that limits your ability to work; this includes both physical (your arthritis) and mental problems, such as the ones that you mentioned. SSA will then consider these as indications of possible impairments that may be viewed in combination.

If there is not enough medical information about your conditions from any treating physicians and psychologists you have, SSA may ask you to have what is called a Consultative Examination. SSA will pay for the exam, which is for evaluation only and not treatment.

In closing, the beaches in Madagascar are virtually untouched by mass tourism. That gives me more freedom to discover the coral reefs and clear turquoise waters.

Stay connected to see where I’ll be traveling next, Ben

Mar '14

Taxes and Benefits

Venice of the East - image of Bangkok, Thailand at sunset overlooking a river bathed in golden light.

Hi Everyone,
I received the following question that seemed very timely to tax season as the sun sets here in Bangkok. What a beautiful sunset it is. I can see why they call this city the Venice of the East. Thanks for sending your questions my way.

Dear Ben,

I started getting SSDI benefits at the beginning of last year (2013) of around $1,200 per month and also a private pension of $600 per month. I am not married and don’t work. Someone told me that people who get social security benefits have to pay taxes on them; I thought SSA benefits weren’t taxed. Are they, and will I need to pay taxes on mine?

Ino, WI

Dear Barbara,

Title II Social Security benefits (which include SSDI) may be taxed depending on how much a beneficiary’s total income is.

The general rule is that if one-half of a single person’s Social Security benefits plus all other income is greater than $25,000 annually, some of the benefits will be subject to federal personal income tax. For a married couple filing jointly, the base amount of income is $32,000. If an individual beneficiary’s total income is between $25,000 and $34,000 ($32,000 and $44,000 for a couple), up to 50 percent of the benefits may be subject to tax. And for beneficiaries with income of more than $34,000 ($44,000 for a couple), up to 85 percent of their benefits may be considered taxable income.

Income that counts toward these base amounts other than Social Security benefits includes wages, net self-employment earnings, interest, other pension benefits, withdrawals from 401(k) and IRA accounts, and other tax-exempt interest.

It appears that your adjusted gross income plus one-half your Social Security benefits will not exceed the $25,000 threshold, so federal taxes would not be due.

Also note that Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments are not subject to taxes.

IRS Publication 915 has extensive and detailed information about benefits subject to income tax and examples of how to complete the appropriate worksheets are included with the IRS forms. http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p915.pdf