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Following Supreme Court Ruling on Same-Gender Marriage, Advocates Highlight Marriage Penalty and Income Limits on Disability Benefits

July 31, 2015

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell on same-gender marriage, advocates with disabilities in the LGBTQ community have raised concerns about continued barriers to marriage for couples who rely on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid benefits. While legal recognition of marriage can grant spouses access to certain rights and benefits, people with disabilities who marry may experience loss of income from Social Security payments or lack of access to healthcare due to a “marriage penalty” in existing benefits laws. By counting spousal income and assets for the purposes of eligibility calculations, and by imposing a lower cap on couples’ incomes than would be imposed collectively on two separate individuals, these marriage penalties can present a significant barrier to families in which one person is dependent on benefits. According to one Social Security Administration (SSA) analysis, marriage between two SSI beneficiaries results in an automatic 25 percent reduction in total benefits. If an SSI beneficiary marries someone with greater income, the beneficiary will have SSI reduced and potentially eliminated altogether, regardless of whether the spouse shares financial resources or is able to fully support the beneficiary’s needs on a single income.

This policy may particularly impact couples in which both individuals receive Medicaid benefits, but one works outside the home. A worker with a disability may benefit from Medicaid Buy-In programs which are open to individuals with higher incomes than the usual income cap for eligibility. However, many of these programs are not open to individuals who exceed income limits as a result of a spouse’s earnings, rather than their own earnings.

Read more about Obergefell’s impact on disability benefits for LGBTQ people with disabilities.