Is there anything more on our minds these days than stretching our dollars? And no question, nothing sabotages your budget like an illness or other health problem, especially one that affects your ability to carry out your everyday obligations. But help is available -- much more help than most people realize. Here are nine government benefits that experts say most people are missing out on.
1. Social security payments to dependents
Who's eligible: Widows and widowers, children, and other dependents of a social security recipient
What you get: Monthly payments based on the social security recipient's work history
How it works: After a death in the family, many people fail to take advantage of money they're entitled to receive from the Social Security Administration. Known as "survivor benefits," these payments are made to the spouse of the deceased and any children or stepchildren under the age of 18. To qualify, the widowed spouse must be over the age of 60 or over the age of 50 and disabled; if the spouse is caring for children under the age of 16, then this age restriction doesn't apply. And in some cases, stepchildren, grandchildren, or step grandchildren can also collect. If a child is severely disabled, he or she can collect on a parent's social security for as long as needed.
And one more thing that few people know: The parents of a social security recipient can collect up to one half that person's social security payment if they were dependent on the deceased for at least half their support. For more information, go to the government's Social Security site and scroll down to see the section titled "Benefits for your family."
Tip: Divorce doesn't disqualify you. You can collect on an ex-spouse's social security if you were married for more than ten years before you divorced and the benefits you are entitled to from your own work are less than his (or hers). If your ex-spouse has not yet filed for social security benefits, then an additional requirement is that you have to have been divorced for at least two years.
2. Shoes for diabetics
Who's eligible: Anyone with diabetes who's eligible for Medicare Part B
What you get: Custom-made shoes and inserts
How it works: If you have diabetes, it might surprise you to know that Medicare Part B will pick up most of the tab for therapeutic shoes. The criteria are fairly simple: You need to be under the care of a doctor for diabetes management and also suffering from serious foot problems, including ulcers, calluses that can lead to ulcers, nerve damage, poor circulation, or deformities.
The coverage is extensive; Medicare will cover 80 percent of the cost of one pair of specially made shoes and three pairs of inserts. Once you get a prescription for therapeutic shoes either from your doctor or from a podiatrist, the shoes will be fitted and provided by a podiatrist or licensed specialist who participates in Medicare.
Tip: You have to have met your Medicare yearly deductible to get this coverage, so wait a few months into the year until you've had a few other medical bills before pursuing.
Transportation and Loans
3. Free rides
Who's eligible: People with mobility problems and seniors
What you get: Transportation to and from your home to appointments and activities
How it works: Paratransit is the official term for transportation provided by local communities for those who can't drive or comfortably use regular public transportation. These services vary by community, but typically it's a door-to-door van service that's available by appointment. The services are provided by local government agencies, but they receive federal funds intended to guarantee access for the disabled and elderly.
To find out more about the federally funded transportation options in your area, contact your local Area Agency on Aging. More transportation resources are available by searching the Department of Health and Human Service's Eldercare Locator on the topic Transportation.
Tip: These services typically require advance planning. It works best if you establish a regular weekly schedule, so you don't have to remember to call each time.
4. Low-interest loans for small businesses affected by disaster
Who's eligible: Any business or nonprofit damaged in a disaster
What you get: Up to $2 million in low-interest, long-term loans
How it works: If your business is affected by a natural disaster such as a flood or hurricane, the Small Business Administration (SBA) offers low-interest long-term loans to help you rebuild, make repairs, restock inventory, and do anything else you need to do to get your business back off the ground. The loans can be used to make repairs to the property itself or to machinery and equipment; the money can also be used to replace furnishings and inventory.
Tip: You can get a larger loan to pay for improvements to your property that protect against future damage.
5. Home or car modifications for veterans
Who's eligible: Veterans with a disability
What you get: A loan or loan guarantee to buy a house or car or modify an existing house or car
How it works: The Veteran's Administration provides extensive services to veterans who are considered to have a service-related disability that prevents them from performing normal, everyday activities. But this doesn't mean that you had to become disabled during service; for many veterans, a mental, emotional, or physical condition that began decades before in the military only becomes disabling with age. In this case, you may qualify for service-connected disability benefits at the point that your condition actually becomes disabling.
A key V.A. disability benefit comes in the form of loans and loan guarantees to help veterans buy or refinance a home or condominium. These loans can also be used to modify a home or car. For some veterans with service-connected disabilities, the V.A. also gives Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) grants, which pay for modifications to a home to adapt it to accommodate their disability.
Tip: If you live with family members, the grants may also be used to modify the home you're living in or the car in which you're being driven, even though it's not owned by you.
Credit Ratings and Therapy
6. Free credit check
Who's eligible: Everyone
What you get: Three credit reports per year at no cost
How it works: Don't get sucked in by the offers from for-profit credit repair companies; you can monitor your credit and fix any problems without spending anything. One of the ways the government helps us protect ourselves from fraud is by offering a free yearly credit check. By law, you're entitled to request one free annual credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. Stagger your requests, and you could monitor your credit every four months at no cost. However, many experts advise ordering all three reports at once so you can compare them. To find out more, go to the federally authorized website www.AnnualCreditReport.com.
7. Therapy for Alzheimer's patients
What you get: Specialized services including outpatient physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy
How it works: For those dealing with memory loss, occupational therapy and physical therapy can be key to coping with the tasks of daily living. To qualify, you just need your doctor to prescribe the treatment, and then use a Medicare-certified therapist. Although Medicare doesn't usually cover psychological services by nonphysicians, there's an exception for Alzheimer's care. (Coverage extends to clinical psychologists or medical social workers who are Alzheimer's care specialists, as long as they're Medicare-certified.)
Tip: If you have Medicare Part C coverage, also called Medicare Advantage, you may be entitled to even more counseling or to additional services.
Veterans' Benefits and Household Help
8. Burial benefits for veterans
Who's eligible: Veterans approved for eligibility with the Veteran's Administration
What you get: A grave site and headstone and, for some, a burial allowance for funeral expenses
How it works: If you're a veteran, you're eligible to be buried in any of the 131 national cemeteries, or in the state cemetery in the state you're living in at the time of death. Your spouse and children are eligible for the same benefit. The choice to be buried in a particular cemetery depends on whether there are grave sites available, and grave sites can't be reserved prior to death. There's no cost to your family for the grave site or for a government headstone or marker, which the cemetery provides. However, this benefit doesn't include the cost of either a funeral or cremation, which must be made privately.
For vets who prefer to be buried in a private cemetery, the government will still provide a government headstone or marker and burial flag. In addition, the Veteran's Administration offers a funeral and burial allowance to some veterans. If a veteran dies of a service-related disability, the V.A. pays up to $2,000 for burial expenses, plus the cost of transportation to a V.A. national cemetery. If the death isn't service-related but the veteran died while receiving care at a V.A. hospital or one under contract to the V.A., or the veteran is on a veteran's pension, the V.A. will pay up to $700 for funeral and burial expenses and another $700 for the cost of a burial plot or interment space. To find out more about medical and death benefits for veterans, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs.
9. Help with household chores
Who's eligible: Those over 60 or disabled
What you get: Free or low-cost home and yard maintenance and moving help
How it works: If you're struggling to maintain your home, it may be possible to obtain help with all those household tasks that have become difficult or impossible to cope with. Under the auspices of the Older Americans Act, many Area Agencies on Aging offer help with household chores as part of the umbrella of services they offer to help people live independently in their homes. In Florida, for example, the Mid-Florida Area Agency on Aging covers a wide array of household chores including seasonal cleaning, yard work, and household repairs that don't require a specialized license. They'll sometimes even cover pest control if it's part of overall house maintenance. They'll also send someone out to help with lifting and moving furniture, appliances, and other heavy objects.
In some areas, the Area Agency on Aging charges a fee for these services, but it's typically much less than you'd normally pay. In Minnesota, for example, one agency charges $15 an hour for snow removal and yard work. Some programs are free but require participants to pay for the services upfront, then apply for grants for reimbursement. In many cases, the minimum age to qualify is 60. Get started by finding your local Area Agency on Aging.