Tax Act Brings Changes to SSI / Medicaid Treatment of Refunds, Tax Credits

Several little-noticed provisions of the recently-enacted law that extended the Bush-era tax cuts fundamentally alter how the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid programs treat tax refunds and other tax credits, making it easier for people with special needs to maintain their benefits.

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides a small cash benefit to people with special needs who meet very stringent income and asset requirements – most SSI beneficiaries also receive Medicaid coverage. An SSI recipient’s monthly cash benefit is reduced by $1 for each dollar of unearned income a beneficiary receives and by $0.50 for each dollar of earned income that a beneficiary receives for working. Unearned income includes gifts, food and shelter, and other one time payments like inheritances and lottery winnings, and, until these changes took effect, unearned income also included tax refunds and some tax credits. This meant that a SSI beneficiary could lose his benefits if he received a large tax refund.

Under the new law, tax refunds are no longer considered countable income for SSI or Medicaid purposes. Furthermore, any money received through a tax refund will not be a countable resource for 12 months following receipt of the funds, and SSI and Medicaid recipients will be under no obligation to segregate the funds from their other resources (SSI recipients can only keep $2,000 of resources and still qualify for benefits). Because of the change in the law, an SSI beneficiary can now retain his tax refund, even if it puts him over the $2,000 resource limit, for up to one year from the date of receipt, which is welcome news for beneficiaries who usually have to count every penny in order to avoid a disruptive loss of benefits.

The new law also changes the treatment of several other important tax credits. Under previous rules, Making Work Pay, Earned Income, Advanced Earned Income, and Child Tax Credits were all excluded as countable income for SSI and Medicaid purposes, but if the income was retained, it had to be spent within nine months of receipt. Now, the 12-month rule applies to all of these tax credits and, furthermore, First-Time Home buyer Tax Credits that were previously countable as income and as a resource are now exempt and subject to the same countability rules as the other tax credits.

In one more piece of good news, the law applies to any refunds or credits received after December 31, 2009, which means that, in limited cases, applicants who were initially denied SSI or Medicaid benefits due to receipt of a tax refund or credit may actually be retroactively eligible for benefits. The Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services have also indicated that seniors and other people seeking Medicaid coverage for long-term care will not be subject to transfer-of-asset penalties if they give away their tax refunds or credits during the 12-month grace period.

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