New Legislation Seeks to End Marriage Penalty for Supplemental Security Income

By: Skylar Mayhew*

Every month, people with disabilities are eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI).[1] SSI is a disability program funded and administered through the Social Security Administration.[2] The amount that a person with a disability receives each month can be lowered depending on several factors.[3] One factor that troubles advocates is the substantial difference in the maximum amount disbursed to a couple versus an individual.[4]

An individual receiving SSI can receive up to $943 per month, whereas a couple receiving SSI can receive $1,415.[5] Thus, the benefits of a couple who both receive SSI are decreased by 25 percent.[6] It is not just marriage that docks these benefits, but also if “two individuals who live in the same household” are holding themselves out as a married couple.[7] Therefore, any couple who receives disability benefits, who are married, hope to be married or who live like a married couple suffers under the current regime.

As the law stands now, people who receive SSI are forced to choose between marriage  or living as a couple and their benefits.[8] This could all change with the Eliminating the Marriage Penalty in SSI Act (EMPSA Act) that was introduced in January 2024.[9] The Act targets the 25 percent deduction of benefits for couples receiving SSI.[10] The Act has been endorsed by numerous disability-rights organizations such as Autism Speaks, Autism Society of America, National Down Syndrome Congress, National Down Syndrome Society, Gigi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Centers, Muscular Dystrophy Association, and Cure Spinal Muscular Atrophy.[11]

The Act was introduced by Representative David Valadao, R-Calif.[12] Rep. David Valadao was inspired by the Kern Regional Center, a nonprofit contracted by California to support individuals with developmental disabilities, and by a phone call from one parent with a disabled child, Kelly Kulzer-Reyes.[13] Kulzer-Reyes informed Rep. Valadao of the SSI reduction that occurs when adults, who both receive SSI, marry.[14] Kulzer-Reyes’ goal is to ensure her daughter Amelia, who receives SSI, is afforded the rights that she deserves to have when she grows up.[15]

Amelia and her family are not the only individuals who worry or are affected by the marriage penalty in receiving SSI. Similar sentiments were shared by the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota back in 2010.[16] One story came from Kurtlyn, who receives SSI because she cannot work full time due to her mental illness.[17] Kurtlyn did not want to be a financial burden on her husband because she loses her Social Security.[18] Kurtlyn shares the same opinion as Kulzer-Reyes, which is that people with disabilities fall in love and should not miss out on marriage because of the fear of losing their benefits.[19] Furthermore, the president of Kern Regional Center, Tracey Mensch, was married and penalized for being married from her benefits.[20] It is clear that while the marriage penalty might not be a widely publicized issue, it is affecting individuals, couples, and families of people with disabilities.

It is not just SSI beneficiaries and their families who endorse this legislation. Other Congressmembers have endorsed with this same sentiment, including Congresswoman Susie Lee, who stated that “[n]o one should be penalized for getting married, especially when it comes to accessing the critical benefits that so many people in our community rely on….”[21] As more political voices join the already outspoken disability rights advocates, there is a shared hope that the dreams of people with disabilities to be married, without having to make a financial sacrifice, will be realized.

This is not the first time that a bill like this has been introduced.[22] In 2019, the Marriage Access for People with Special Abilities Act (MAPSA Act) was introduced in Congress.[23] Similar to the new legislation, this bill also disregarded marital status when calculating SSI benefit amounts.[24] Proponents of the EMPSA Act have the same goals as the proponents of the MAPSA Act.[25] One writer for the National Down Syndrome Society, Kayla, wrote about MAPSA.[26] She wrote how one of her long-term goals was “to get married someday and start a family.”[27] Because of the current structure of SSI, Kayla knows that “if two individuals with Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities decide to get married their incomes will be combined and will then be above…maximum income levels [resulting in a loss of] much needed benefits like social security…”[28] MAPSA, like the current legislation, aimed to change that.

MAPSA was introduced in 2019, but has yet to be passed.[29] Therefore the need for the EMPSA Act is apparent. However, the same problem arises with this Act as MAPSA. Ninety percent of bills will not pass because they get buried in committees and subcommittees due to bipartisan infighting.[30] MAPSA has not moved forward since it was referred to a Subcommittee on Social Security and a House Committee on Ways and Means in 2021.[31] An important difference that could help is that MAPSA excludes a spouse’s income when determining SSI eligibility.[32] Members of Congress likely had a problem with the fact that a wealthy family could receive benefits despite the fact that they may not have a need.[33] The EMPSA Act gets rid of the issue by only eliminating only the decrease in benefits for spouses who both receive SSI and not the consideration of a spouse’s income entirely.

There is still the concern about whether Congress is willing to expend more funds on SSI if the 25 percent marriage penalty is eliminated. Political pressure from Americans has mounted over the fear of Social Security funds running dry.[34] It is unclear if Congress would really be willing to spend to more of the Social Security funds to support the disability community. [35] This may be another political play that will never be passed and stay in legislation limbo. It is hard to forecast what will be done, but with 2024 being an important election year, this is the perfect time for disability rights advocates to raise their voices and mobilize in support of the cause.

*Skylar Mayhew is a Staff Writer on the Journal of Law and Inequality.

[1] Supplemental Security Income, Soc. Sec. Admin., (last visited Jan. 29, 2024).

[2] Overview of Social Security Disability Programs: SSI and SSDI, SAMHSA,,by%20the%20Social%20Security%20Administration (last visited Feb. 19, 2024).

[3] How much you could get from SSI, Soc. Sec. Admin., (last visited Jan. 29, 2024) (Income, a job, unemployment payments, pensions and living in someone’s home can all impact the amount received in Social Security Income).

[4] Shaun Heasley, Lawmakers Want To End SSI Marriage Penalty For People With Developmental Disabilities, Disability Scoop (Jan. 26, 2024),

[5] Soc. Sec. Admin., supra note 3.

[6] Heasley, supra note 4; see also Richard Blakus & Susan Wilschke, Treatment of Married Couples in the SSI Program, Issue Paper No. 2003-01 (Dec. 2003),,purposes%20of%20the%20SSI%20program (“Benefits for a married couple, both of whom receive SSI and have no other income, amount to 25 percent less than the total they would receive if they were living together but not as husband and wife.”).

[7] Soc. Sec. Admin., SI 00501.152 (Jan. 5, 2024),

[8] Heasley, supra note 4.

[9] Id..; H.R. 7055, 118th Cong. (2024)

[10] Id.

[11] Press Release, Congressman Valadao, CONGRESSMAN VALADAO ANNOUNCES BILL TO REMOVE MARRIAGE PENALTY FOR SUPPLEMENTAL SECURITY INCOME RECIPIENTS (Jan. 23, 2024),; Cure Spinal Muscular Atrophy, Eliminate the Social Security Marriage Penalty for People with SMA and other Disabilities, Voter Voice, (last visited Jan. 29, 2024).

[12] Rep. David Valadao (@RepDavidValadao), Twitter (Jan. 23, 2024, 4:24 PM), (“Individuals with intellectual disabilities shouldn’t be punished for getting married, but sadly that’s exactly what’s happening with their reduction in SSI benefits. I introduced the Eliminating the Marriage Penalty in SSI Act to right this wrong.”).

[13] Melanie Nguyen, Valadao proposes bill to eliminate ‘marriage penalty’ for disabled receiving benefits, Bakersfield (Jan. 23, 2024),; WHO IS KERN REGIONAL CENTER, Kern RC, (last visited Jan. 29, 2024) (The Kern Regional Center is contracted by the state of California to support individuals with disabilities and their families.).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] B.J. Stasio, People with Disabilities and the Federal Marriage Penalties, ICI what is the ICI? (2010),

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.; Nguyen, supra note 13.

[20] Nguyen, supra note 13.

[21] Congressmen Valadao, supra note 11.

[22] MAPSA Act, H.R. 761, 117th Cong. (2019)

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Kayla McKeon, Kayla’s Perspective on MAPSAA, Nat’l Down Syndrome Soc. (Feb. 25, 2021),

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] MAPSA Act, supra note 22.

[30] WCOO News, Good Question: Why Is It So Hard To Pass A Law?, CBS News (June 23, 2016, 10:56PM),

[31] MAPSA Act, supra note 22.

[32] Kayla McKeon, Congress can end the marriage penalty for people with intellectual disabilities, Wash. Exam’r (June 27, 2019, 12:00 AM),

[33] MAPSA Act, supra note 22.; It is important to note that this concern ignore the fact that persons with disabilities should have their own money and not be dependent on a spouse, as access to a money can impact power in a relationship. See How does money impact a relationship?, Sheperds Friendly (Jan. 24, 2018),

[34] Aliss Higham, Social Security Cuts Worry Most Americans, Newsweek (Feb. 16, 2024, 11:17 AM),,what%20current%20seniors%20can%20claim.

[35] Greg Iacurci, Social Security trust funds are running dry. Here are 4 things to know, CNBC (Sept. 11, 2023, 3:39 PM),