Not knowing which Social Security program you’re on

There are two Social Security disability programs: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). You may be on one or both programs. Their acronyms are similar, and both are run by the Social Security Administration, so people often confuse the two programs. Although both programs use the same definition of disability, they have different rules.

Make sure you know exactly which program you are on. If you have any questions about what benefits you’re on, ask Social Security for a Benefits Planning Query (BPQY). If you are getting benefits administered by the state, such as Medi-Cal or CalFresh (formerly Food Stamps), you can contact your local county social services agency to confirm which programs you’re on.

Not supplying enough information when you apply

When you apply for SSI benefits, the decision can take a long time. The last thing you need is for Social Security to deny your application because of some missing piece of information. Make sure you include contact information for all doctors, physical therapists, and others who have treated you for your disability.

Waiting too long to file an appeal

If you are denied SSI benefits and don’t agree with Social Security’s decision, you can file an appeal. After you get a denial letter, you have 60 days to file an appeal. That’s not a lot of time, especially if you want to find some help with your appeal. Make sure you file your appeal right away.

Note: Social Security figures that you get a letter within five days after they sent it.

Refiling, rather than appealing, if you are denied SSI benefits

Some people who are denied SSI benefits just gather up additional information and submit a new SSI application. This is the wrong thing to do. You should file an appeal instead. You must file your appeal within 60 days of the date of your denial letter.

If you file a new SSI application, your process starts all over with a new application date.

If you appeal and you win, your SSI benefits will be paid all the way back to the original application date.

Not working out of fear of losing your benefits

Many people on SSI don’t try to go to work because they fear losing the cash benefits from SSI or their Medi-Cal coverage. But the SSI rules are designed to make a return to work possible.

When you start to work, SSI lets you keep the first $85 in earned income ($20 general exclusion + $65 earned income exclusion) without affecting your benefits at all. After that, every $2 of earnings reduces your SSI benefits amount by only $1, so you end up with more money than you would have had if you weren’t working. Most people on SSI who go back to work will end up better off.

If you try getting a job and it doesn’t work out, you should be able to get back on SSI benefits quickly through quick benefits restart or Expedited Reinstatement (EXR) as long as you are still disabled.

Also, if you earn enough for your SSI benefits to go to zero, you may still be able to keep your Medi-Cal coverage through SSI’s 1619(b) work incentive or through Medi-Cal's Working Disabled Program.

Not documenting work expenses

Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs) (or Blind Work Expenses (BWEs) if you are blind) are documented expenses related to your disability that support your work. Social Security subtracts these work expenses from your countable income when calculating your benefit. This increases the amount of your benefit.

But no matter how legitimate an IRWE is, Social Security will not allow it unless you have receipts. Make sure you always get receipts for all work expenses, and file them carefully.

Failing to report changes in income, resources or living situation

Your monthly SSI benefits amount depends on your:

If any of these things change, even slightly, you must immediately report the change within the first 6 days of the following month to avoid an overpayment. Example: If you move in June, you need to tell Social Security by July 6.

Ways to report your income to Social Security

For SSI, you can report changes:

When you report, you’ll need to have documentation, like a letter explaining any changes and copies of your paystubs. If you have questions about the best way to report your earnings, talk to your local Social Security office or with a Benefits Planner.

Note: If you also get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, you must report your income separately for SSI and SSDI. Ask your Social Security claims representative how you should report income for SSDI.

Not responding promptly to an overpayment notice

Social Security may decide that they have paid you more in benefits than you were supposed to get. This situation is called an overpayment. You’ll get a letter from Social Security that tells you how much money you need to pay back.

It’s very important to deal with an overpayment notice right away. The overpayment letter will ask for the money to be returned within 30 days, but Social Security knows that people on SSI have very little income, so they are willing to work out a monthly payment plan with you. You should contact Social Security immediately to talk about your options.