published Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Social Security: State common-law rules dictate benefit eligibility

By Martin Coffey

Q: Ms. D. of Ringgold writes: “I have lived with my common-law spouse in Georgia for the past 16 years. Am I entitled to his Social Security benefits now or do I have to wait until his death?”

A: Social Security follows the laws of the state where the worker was residing at the time of death or the place where the worker is residing when the spouse applies for benefits. In order for a common-law marriage to be valid, it must have been contracted in a state where common-law marriages are recognized. Common-Law Marriage Statute for the state of Georgia states that common-law marriages entered into on or after Jan. 1, 1997, are not recognized and are not valid. Many states do not honor common-law marriages, so you should check local laws. However, most states (even those in which a man and woman could not enter into a valid common-law marriage) generally will recognize a common-law marriage validly entered into in another state. Again, check local laws.

Q: “My mother receives Supplemental Security Income benefits. She may have to enter a nursing home later this year. How does this affect her SSI benefits?”

A: Moving to a nursing home can affect your mother’s SSI benefits, but it depends on the facility. In some cases, the SSI payment may be reduced or stopped. Whenever your mother enters or leaves a nursing home, assisted living facility, hospital, skilled nursing facility or any other kind of institution, it is important that you tell Social Security. Call Social Security’s toll-free number, 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). We can answer specific questions and provide free interpreter services from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. We also provide information by automated phone service 24 hours a day.

Q: “My uncle is interested in getting help with his Medicare Part D prescription costs, but he has about $10,000 in the bank. Would he still be eligible?”

A: Based on his resources, yes. However, there are other factors to consider as well including your uncle’s income. This year a person’s total resources are, in most cases, limited to $12,640 (or $25,260 if married and living with spouse) to qualify for Extra Help with Medicare prescription drug costs. The resource limits shown on the application include a $1,500 per person exclusion for burial purposes. Resources include the value of the things you own, such as real estate (other than the place you live), cash, bank accounts, stocks, bonds and retirement accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s. There are exceptions. To learn more, go to www.socialsecurity.gov or call us at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

Get answers to your Social Security questions each Thursday from the Social Security District Director Martin Coffey. Submit questions by writing to Business Editor Dave Flessner, Chattanooga Times Free Press, P.O. Box 1447, Chattanooga, TN 37401-1447, or by e-mailing him at dflessner@timesfreepress.com

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