Social Security Disability Benefits

A severe physical or mental condition may qualify you for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

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No matter how old you are, if you have a medical disability that prevents you from working, you may be able to claim benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). There are two benefit programs you can apply for:

  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI): available only to disabled people who've already worked for a certain number of years.
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI): available to disabled or elderly people whose incomes and assets are very low.

SSDI is part of the United States' Social Security program, which is officially known as the "Old Age, Survivors And Disability Insurance Program," or OASDI. SSI is not. But the benefit from both programs is cash, the amount depending on which program you qualify for.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)

To be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), you must not only be disabled, but you must also have built up sufficient "work credits" with Social Security. Exactly how many credits you will need depends on your age and the year you became disabled. You must have worked some part of five of the last ten years before you became disabled. 

If your application is approved, your Social Security disability benefits will include cash payments in an amount determined based on your personal earnings record. Average payments range from $1,000 to $1,200 a month. Higher earners who paid higher FICA taxes will get a larger benefit.

After collecting disability benefits for 24 months, you will become eligible for Medicare, regardless of your age. In the meantime, if your income is low, you may qualify for Medicaid.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is run by the SSA, but it is actually a cooperative program between the SSA and your state government. That means that your eligibility, as well as the amount of benefits you receive, will depend on what state you live in. For federal SSA purposes, however, you must meet all of the following four criteria:

  • You must be blind, disabled, or age 65 or over.
  • You must be either a citizen of the United States, or meet very narrow requirements based on your U.S. permanent residency, military service, or political asylee or refugee status.
  • Your monthly income must be low. Only about half of your earned income will be taken into account, but this counted income cannot be higher than an amount set by the state in which you live -- from $700 to $1,400 per month. However, some states allow people with higher incomes to receive state benefits.
  • The property you own (minus certain items, such as your car and home) must be worth less than $2,000, or $3,000 for a couple. 

If your application is approved, your SSI benefits will include cash payments of $721 per month for an individual or $1,082 per month for a couple (2014), less part of your income. Your state may supplement this amount with an additional payment (called the State Supplementary Payment). The federal amount is adjusted in January of each year, depending on the U.S. cost of living.

In most state, you will also automatically become eligible for Medicaid and food stamps once you are approved for SSI.

How the SSA Defines Disability

A crucial part of claiming benefits under either Social Security program is proving that you are severely disabled -- that is, that you have a physical or mental condition that prevents you from doing any substantial "gainful activity" (work) and will last at least one year or will cause your death.

The determination of whether you are disabled leaves a lot of room for argument. The fact that your doctor may have advised you not to work, or that you feel too ill to work, does not necessarily mean that the SSA will agree that you are disabled.

The SSA evaluates disability for both SSDI and SSI claims using its own medical experts and claims examiners. These decision makers use both a list of physical and mental conditions and evaluations of your "residual functional capacity" to determine whethr you are disabled. The listings for many of the qualifying medical conditions are explained on Nolo's website in the section on specific disabilities

The good news is that if you are denied benefits because the SSA says you are not disabled, you have a good chance of winning on appeal. Often you simply need to appear in person at a hearing and show more evidence of your disability. To learn more about appealing Social Security benefit denials, read Nolo's article Social Security: How to Appeal Denied Claims.

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