Rachel Bechtel is a 1L at the American University Washington College of Law. She is a disability justice activist who has experience in advocacy, direct support, and academic research. She most recently completed a Fulbright Grant in which she studied the effects of ongoing deinstitutionalization on prejudice towards people with intellectual disabilities.

In 2015, the United States celebrated the Obergefell v. Hodges[1] decision as a win for marriage equality.[2] However, for many members of the Disabled community, marriage equality is still out of reach.[3] With the introduction of H.R. 7055, Eliminating the Marriage Penalty in SSI Act, Representative David Valadao (R-CA) and seven bipartisan cosponsors hope to change this reality for adults with intellectual disabilities.[4]

Disabled adults face many systemic barriers to living self-determined lives in which they are free to live where they want, parent if and how they want, and marry whoever they want.[5] One of these barriers is the “SSI Marriage Penalty”.[6] The “SSI Marriage Penalty” refers to the reduction or complete removal of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) when an SSI recipient marries or cohabitates in a romantic relationship.[7]

While SSI benefits provide much needed assistance to those who qualify, many SSI beneficiaries still struggle financially.[8] The Department of Health and Human Services reports that the 2024 federal poverty line is $15,060 annually for one person and $20,440 for two.[9] Yet, the Social Security Administration (SSA) caps SSI benefits at $11,316 for an individual and $16,980 for two.[10] SSI beneficiaries are virtually unable to meet basic needs with SSI benefits alone.[11] Still, SSI recipients cannot retain more than $2,000 in assets.[12]

When an SSI recipient marries or romantically cohabitates, their partner’s income and assets are considered when calculating their benefits.[13] Before marriage, the SSA caps individual benefits at $943 per month with an asset limit of $2,000.[14] After marriage, the SSA caps benefits at $1,415 per month for both partners, with a total asset limit of only $3,000.[15] Therefore, when someone who receives SSI benefits marries someone who does not qualify for these benefits, the SSI recipient often completely loses their benefits.[16] When an SSI recipient marries or romantically cohabitates with another SSI recipient, their benefits are slashed by 25%.[17] The “marriage penalty” only applies in the context of romantic relationships and does not apply to other cohabitating SSI recipients.[18] This penalty functionally prevents many Disabled people from marrying or engaging in long-term romantic relationships, impacting their fundamental right to marry under Obergefell.[19]

Disability justice organizations such as the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) have long protested the SSI Marriage Penalty.[20] In September of 2023, DREDF hosted a Disabled Marriage Equality Now Rally.[21] During the Rally, twenty Disabled couples participated in a mass commitment ceremony on the National Mall to protest the SSI Marriage Penalty.[22]

The Eliminating the Marriage Penalty in SSI Act would amend Title XVI of the Social Security Act to prevent marital status or spousal income and resources from affecting the SSI benefits of someone with an intellectual or developmental disability.[23] The bill was introduced to the House on January 18, 2024, and has been referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means.[24] If Congress passes this bill, SSI recipients with disabilities will be able to marry whoever they want without jeopardizing their ability to meet their basic needs.[25] This bill represents one step closer to actual marriage equality.[26]

 

[1] 576 U.S. 644 (2015).

[2] Id. at 681.

[3] Shaun Heasley, Lawmakers Want to End SSI Marriage Penalty for People with Developmental Disabilities, Disability Scoop (Jan. 26, 2024),  https://www.disabilityscoop.com/2024/01/26/lawmakers-want-to-end-ssi-marriage-penalty-for-people-with-developmental-disabilities/30716/#:~:text=Under%20a%20bipartisan%20proposal%20in,by%2025%25%20if%20they%20wed.

[4] Eliminating the Marriage Penalty in SSI Act, H.R. 7055, 118th Cong. (2024).

[5] Perry, Ed Roberts, the Disability Rights Movement and the ADA, Am. Ass’n for People with Disabilities, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/GgXx4PBo_Ty9Jg (last visited Feb. 24, 2024).

[6] Shaun Heasley, supra note 3.

[7] Marriage Equality Factsheets, Disability Rts. Educ. & Def. Fund, https://dredf.org/marriage-equality-factsheets/ (last visited Feb. 24, 2024).

[8] Id.

[9] Poverty Guidelines, Off. of the Assistant Sec’y for Plan. and Evaluation, https://aspe.hhs.gov/topics/poverty-economic-mobility/poverty-guidelines (last visited Feb. 24, 2024).

[10] Marriage Equality Factsheets, supra note 7 (stating that the SSI asset cap has remained unchanged for thirty-five years).

[11] Id.

[12] Marriage Equality Factsheets, supra note 7.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and the 25 Percent Marriage Penalties, Disability Rts Educ. & Def. Fund (Feb. 14, 2024), https://dredf.org/2022/08/22/supplemental-security-income-ssi-and-the-25-percent-marriage-penalties/.

[18] Richard Balkus & Susan Wilschke, Treatment of Married Couples in the SSI Program, Soc. Sec. Off. of Pol’y (Dec. 2003), https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/issuepapers/ip2003-01.html.

[19] See Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Marriage Penalty, Disability Rts. N.C. (2015), https://adanc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/SSI-Marriage-Penalty.pdf.; See also Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. at 681; see also Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 12 (1967); see also Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Marriage Penalty, Disability Rts. N.C. (2015), https://adanc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/SSI-Marriage-Penalty.pdf.

[20] Tammy LaGorce, For Disabled Couples, a Plea for Marriage Equality, N.Y. Times (Sept. 15, 2023), https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/15/fashion/weddings/disabled-couples-marriage-equality-rally.html.

[21] Disabled Marriage Equality Now: Commitment Ceremony & Dance Party in DC!, Disability Rts. Educ. & Def. Fund, https://www.eventbrite.com/e/disabled-marriage-equality-now-commitment-ceremony-dance-party-in-dc-tickets-667825101857#:~:text=IF%20DISABLED%20AMERICANS%20MARRY%2C%20THEY,Street%20SW%20(between%20Madison%20Dr (last visited Feb. 24, 2024).

[22] Disabled Marriage Equality Now: Commitment Ceremony & Dance Party in DC!, supra note 25. (last visited Feb. 24, 2024).

[23] Eliminating the Marriage Penalty in SSI Act, H.R. 7055, 118th Cong. (2024).

[24] H.R.7055 – EMPSA Act, Congress.Gov, https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/house-bill/7055/cosponsors?s=1&r=1&overview=closed (last visited Feb. 24, 2024).

[25] Shaun Heasley, supra note 3.

[26] Id.