Many people don’t realize that the Social Security Administration (SSA) has programs to assist disabled children financially. If the child lives in a low-income household, they might qualify to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). However, SSI is not a forever guarantee. In fact, once the child reaches adulthood, they may lose their benefits. On that note, we recently had a reader send us a question about that transition. “Why did my SSI payments cut off automatically after my 18th birthday? I don’t understand what happened. Can you help?”
Unfortunately, we don’t know this reader’s exact situation or disability. But we can share what happens when a child SSI recipient turns 18. And there are several reasons that their previous eligibility may no longer continue.
When Can a Child Qualify for SSI Disability?
Before explaining why SSI might stop on someone’s 18th birthday, it first helps to understand how someone might initially qualify.
A child must first show proof of being blind or disabled, as listed in the SSA’s definition of disability for children. There is no minimum age, but the child must be under the age of 18. And they must exhibit medically verifiable physical or mental impairments expected to last more than 12 months. This condition must also result in “marked and severe functional limitations” — meaning it seriously limits the child’s activities.
On top of that, the child must live in a household with limited resources. And yes, that includes a portion of the parent’s income and savings. The SSA calls this “deeming” (the process of determining how much of a parent’s income and resources count).
These deeming calculations are confusing, and this is one good reason to hire a disability attorney for childhood SSI cases. However, the gist is that many disabled children will not qualify for SSI because their parents make too much money.
But for those who do qualify, obviously those funds are meant to provide better care for the disabled child.
What Happens When a Child Receiving SSI Has Their 18th Birthday?
As you can see, qualifying for SSI as a child isn’t an easy process. And once a child’s claim receives approval, they must consent to occasional reevaluations.
Typically, these reviews — called Continuing Disability Reviews (CDR) —occur every three years. Though they may happen more or less frequently depending on the nature and expected duration of the child’s disability.
But one time it’ll definitely happen is around the child’s 18th birthday. This is because the SSA has a different set of qualifying requirements for adults than for children. So, they will perform a reassessment of the claim through a new lens. It’s possible our reader’s condition could not meet the SSA’s adult definition of disability, leading to a cancellation of benefits.
However, it shouldn’t be a surprise to have payments cease, and it doesn’t just happen automatically. The SSA usually contacts the claimant within a year of their 18th birthday for a CDR. And after that review, the individual should receive notification of the decision.
If the SSA decides they’re no longer eligible for SSI, they have 60 days to appeal. And if a person appeals within 10 days, they may also request to have SSI benefits continue during the appeal process.
In our reader’s case, if there was no CDR, then that’s yet another reason to chat with a lawyer. Because there should be a request for a CDR around the time of the SSI recipient’s 18th birthday.
What Happens During the Age-18 Redetermination?
The good news is that the 18th birthday CDR isn’t like applying for benefits from scratch. Beyond the Blue Book definition of disability, it includes consideration for things like success or failure in school. This adds some flexibility into the SSA’s determination as to how the child will function in an adult world.
During the age-18 review, the SSA will likely ask for the following information:
- Prescriptions for medications to treat the condition.
- Records from related hospital stays and/or surgeries.
- Visits to doctors and clinics.
- Participation in counseling and therapy sessions.
- Attendance in schools, special classes, and/or tutoring.
- Any work activity.
- Statements from teachers, counselors, doctors, and family members who have knowledge of the individual’s condition, progress, and abilities.
Through these materials, the SSA will then be able to assess if the now-18-year-old meets the adult disability rules.
The other element to consider here is that once a child reaches adulthood, the reason for granting SSI also changes. As a minor, the assessment for disability benefits stems from the child’s functional limitations. But as an adult, the SSA immediately starts looking at the disability from the perspective of “Can this person work?” That subtle shift to “ability to make money” from “ability to complete daily tasks” may also explain benefit termination.
However, keep in mind that it can also work in the child-now-adult’s favor. This is because parental income “deeming” also ends at age 18. So, if the disabled child now qualifies as a disabled adult, they may receive SSI benefits on their own merit. And the SSA will only count Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) that the claimant earns or directly benefits from receiving.
When Can a Child’s SSI Benefits Extend Past Their 18th Birthday?
There are a few instances where SSI benefits may extend past the recipient’s 18th birthday under the pre-18 rules.
A beneficiary can continue to qualify for SSI if participating in an approved vocational rehabilitation program or special education program. This may include things like an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Plan to Achieve Self Support (PASS). However, participation must begin before the 18th birthday.
If the beneficiary attends a VR, they should mention it at their age-18 redetermination. If the SSA agrees this is a worthwhile and necessary program, the child may still receive SSI until age 22. Or until they complete said program.
Age 18 is also a good time to explore opening an ABLE savings account. ABLE is short for “Achieving a Better Life Experience” and these accounts allow SSI recipients to actually save some money. In general, if someone has more than $2,000 in savings, they’ll lose their SSI benefits. But that doesn’t allow younger recipients to put away any money for a rainy day.
With an ABLE savings account, the SSI recipient can save up to $16,000/year. This is a tax-advantaged savings account available only for SSI recipients whose disabilities began before age 26. As long as there isn’t more than $100,000 in the account, it will not affect SSI benefits.
This can be a great way for someone who is still on SSI to build up funds. Especially if they’re in a VR and may lose benefits after that completes.
When to Get Legal Help
About one in three children who receive SSI will lose their benefits on their 18th birthday. As a result, it’s highly advisable for anyone with a disabled child about to turn 18 to retain legal help.
This is a complicated transition. And since the disability rules change from childhood to adulthood, a skilled disability attorney is a must.
The SSA understands the differences between someone just turning 18 and those who are already adults. But the right lawyer can help make sure to present your case for benefit continuation in the best possible light.
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Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as Match.com, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity, Mail.com, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.