Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is one component of the federal Social Security system. The benefits it provides are intended to prevent people from becoming paupers because injury or illness has left them completely unable to earn a living—something that happens to a surprisingly large portion of the population. In fact, according to the Social Security Administration, a 20 year-old worker has a 3-in-10 chance of becoming disabled before retirement age. And more than 7.2 million workers and their families currently draw Social Security disability benefits.

And that number has recently been on the rise. The number of people applying for SSDI benefits reached a record high 2.8 million applicants in 2009—the highest ever recorded and the highest-ever yearly increase of 20%. Experts posit that the greater number of applications may be a result of individuals with worsening disabilities who have been out of work because of the recession and now realize they are medically unable to return to work.

When you and your employer pay into the Social Security program, you are buying long-term disability insurance coverage. Once you have paid into the program for a period specified by the government, you are eligible for benefits should you become unable to earn a living.

Disability program payments are not intended to cover temporary, short-term, or partial disability. The benefits were sanctioned by Congress with the assumption that working families have other support resources during short-term disabilities—such as workers’ compensation, insurance, savings, and investment income.



For a complete explanation of the Social Security system and more detail on filing and appealing Social Security disability insurance claims, see Nolo’s Guide to Social Security Disability: Getting and Keeping Your Benefits, by David Morton (Nolo).

Workers’ Comp and Social
Security: Separate and Unequal

In contrast to the workers’ compensation program (see Chapter 12), the Social Security disability insurance system does not recognize degrees of wage-earning capability. Under Social Security eligibility rules, you are either able to work (in which case you do not qualify for its benefits) or you are not able to work (in which case you may qualify). Also, unlike workers’ comp eligibility requirements, a disability need not be work-related to be covered under the Social Security benefit system.

However, if you receive workers’ comp payments, your Social Security benefit may be reduced. The law states that the sum of all your disability payments cannot exceed 80% of your earnings averaged over a period of time shortly before you became disabled. (See “Other Disability Benefits,” below.)

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