Photo: rickmccharles via Flickr
A Freeport, Ill. couple has decided to get divorced after 21 years of marriage because the wife’s new job would mean that the husband’s disability payments would be severely cut.David and Lois Fisher told the Freeport Journal-Standard that they’d been living at poverty level since David broke his back in three places in 2000, relying on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments for his disability.
In 2005, when Lois lost her job, the couple were forced to move into a Winnebago in the backyard of David’s mother’s home, and Lois decided that she needed to go back to school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2010, but it took her another year to land a job that pays her only $1.25 over minimum wage with no benefits.
Despite the fact that her take-home pay is only $1,300 per month, the couple told the Journal-Standard that the additional household income meant that David would lose nearly $900 per month — $700 of it in SSI.
The couple have appealed the denial of benefits and hope they don’t have to divorce, but claim they’re ready to do so if necessary.
Her firm has had clients seeking advice on whether to divorce in order to receive disability payments. However, she says, “we have decided not to get involved in marital issues.”
The reason, she says, is because divorcing as a way to continue receiving disability payments is a risky business.
“We currently have a client who, before they retained us, divorced their spouse so that they could continue receiving SSI,” she said. “However, this claimant continued to live in the home with their ‘former spouse.’ The Social Security Administration was made aware of this and now her benefits are on hold, pending an investigation.
“This type of situation may pose a problem for those considering this, especially if the working spouse has the eligible spouse on their health insurance, file tax returns together, or simply maintain the same residence.”
Therefore, Snodgrass said, “I do not believe it is advisable to divorce a spouse to maintain eligibility for benefits.”
According to the Social Security Administration, SSI is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues and not by Social Security taxes. This means that SSI payments are a welfare benefit based on need and not by a worker’s contributions to the system.
The Social Security Administration employs a complicated formula for determining the degree to which a spouse’s income reduces SSI payments. It’s called “spousal deeming,” and refers to how much of a working spouse’s income is “deemed” to be available to the SSI recipient.
If deeming does apply—as it does in the case of the Fishers—the income of the working spouse is combined with the income of the SSI recipient to create a sum that the Social Security Administration uses to determine how much the disability payment must be reduced.
The Fishers don’t want to divorce, but they’re seriously considering as perhaps the only way they can get around the deeming requirements.
“Because she went to school and got a minimum wage job, I lose my benefits,” David told the Journal-Standard. “I’m just afraid people our age are going to be suffering. This is as much about them as it is about us.”
If you or a loved one are in danger of losing all or part of your SSI benefits you should contact an attorney who can help you understand your options. Visit the Social Security Disability area on Lawyers.com for more information and to find an attorney in your area.