What Is Social Security Disability And How Does One Qualify For Benefits?

When a person becomes too sick or injured to return to work, he obvious question is, “What can I do to make ends meet?” One option is to apply for monthly disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (‘SSA’). The application and appeal process can be complicated, so contacting an experienced disability attorney is a good idea.

What are the types of Social Security disability benefits?

There are two different programs through which the SSA pays disability benefits. Those programs are:

  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Both programs use the same basic definition of "disabled," and there's some overlap between the programs.

What is Social Security Disability Insurance?

SSDI is a safety net program that insures workers in the case they get sick or injured and can't work as a result. With SSDI, you pay Social Security taxes out of each paycheck, and a portion of this tax money goes to fund the SSDI program. 

If you have a qualifying disability, you can apply for SSDI benefits. These benefits can be paid to you the entire time you remain disabled until you reach your full retirement age – and then you will automatically be transitioned to retirement benefits.

How do you qualify for SSDI?

You need to meet some basic requirements.

You must have earned a sufficient number of work credits.

Work credits are basically points you accumulate by earning, and paying Social Security taxes on, a certain amount of money. You can earn four credits per year. The specific number of work credits you need to qualify for SSDI will vary depending how old you are when you become disabled. As a general rule, you can potentially qualify if you've earned at least 20 credits in the 10 years prior to becoming disabled and if you've earned a total of 40 credits or more.

If you are younger when you become disabled, the work credit requirement is reduced based on age. For example, if you are under 24 when you become disabled, you can become eligible for SSDI if you earned at least six work credits in the three year period before your disability occurs.

You cannot be engaged in substantial gainful activity

"Substantial gainful activity" (SGA) is basically defined as earning at least a certain amount of income from work (earnings from other sources don't count in determining SGA). The SGA level changes periodically. This restriction exists because the SSA wants to make sure your disability is in fact preventing you from working. If you earn a regular paycheck, then by definition you are not disabled.

You have to meet the definition of disabled

This means you need to have a serious long-term medical condition that prevents you from working. The cause of your impairment generally does not matter -- it can be the result of an accident, an illness, or any other cause. The important thing is that you meet the SSA's specific and narrow definition of what it means to be disabled.

You must be unable to do any job you're qualified for

You must be unable to do not only the job you were doing when you became disabled, but also any other job for which you're qualified. The SSA will look at your transferrable skills to find out whether you can do any work despite your disabling condition.

What if you don't have enough work credits?

It is possible you may be able to qualify based on a spouse's or parent's work record. For example:

  • Widows or widowers between the ages of 50 and 60 who become disabled may qualify for widow's disability benefits based on a spouse's work history. 
  • If you become disabled before age 22, you can be classified as an adult child and potentially become eligible for SSDI benefits based on a parent's work history. 

What is SSI?

SSI benefits are funded through general tax revenue, rather than through special taxes collected solely for the program. You can qualify for these benefits regardless of your work history, but you must have low income and few valuable assets.

How much can you receive in Supplemental Security Income?

The monthly income you'll receive from SSI is typically lower than the monthly benefit you'd get from SSDI. It's not based on past wages but is instead a fixed amount based on the federal benefit rate. 

How do you qualify for SSI?

You can qualify for SSI if:

You're aged, blind, or disabled

This would mean you're over 65, you're legally blind, or you meet the SSA's definition of disabled. The definition of disabled is the same for SSI and SSDI.

You have limited income 

You cannot get SSI benefits if you are engaged in substantial gainful activity. The definition of SGA for SSI is the same as it for SSDI, so you won't be eligible for benefits if you earn too much.

The SSI counts only certain types income in determining whether you will receive reduced benefits or become ineligible. This includes income earned from working, workers' compensation or unemployment benefits, the Department of Veterans' Affairs, other Social Security benefits, or family or friends.

You have few assets

There's also a limit on how much you can own before you become ineligible for SSI. Individuals with more than $2,000 in countable assets won't qualify for SSI, while couples are allowed up to $3,000 in assets. 

Assets or resources that are counted for the purpose of determining whether you hit this $2,000 or $3,000 threshold include cash, bank accounts, stocks, savings bonds, vehicles, land, personal property, life insurance, and other things you own that you could convert into shelter or food. However, some of your assets -- such as the home you live in, one vehicle, and some personal property -- won't count when determining your resources.

What is the Social Security Administration's definition of "disabled"?

To obtain disability payments from either SSI or SSDI, you must meet the Social Security Administration's definition of disabled. This is not as easy as it sounds. For the SSA to consider you disabled, your condition must:

  • Last a year, be expected to last a year, or be expected to result in your death. 
  • Significantly limit your ability to do basic activities necessary to work, such as walking, sitting, standing, or retaining and remembering information.
  • Be included in the SSA's "Listing of Impairments" (more on that shortly) or be medically equivalent to listed conditions. This Listing of Impairments is also called the "Blue Book."
  • Prevent you from doing any work for which you're qualified. 

More than half of all applicants for disability benefits are denied, often because their ailment does not meet this very limited definition of what it means to be disabled. An experienced disability attorney can evaluate your case and handle appealing initial denials.


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