What Is Social Security Disability?

Learn about your eligibility for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI). If you're unable to work because of a physical or mental condition, there’s a good chance you can qualify for monthly benefits.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

No matter how old you are, if you have a medical disability that prevents you from working, you might be able to claim benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). There are two benefit programs you can apply for, SSDI or SSI. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is available to disabled or elderly people whose incomes and assets are very low. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is only available to disabled people who've worked for a certain number of years. This article is about SSDI qualifications and benefits.

What Is Social Security Disability Insurance?

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. SSDI benefits are for people who have to stop working before they reach retirement age. The amount of your Social Security disability benefit is generally the same as your future Social Security retirement benefit—but collecting disability benefits before full retirement age won't lower your eventual retirement benefits.

If your SSDI application is approved, your Social Security disability benefits will include cash payments in an amount based on your personal earnings record. Average payments range from $1,300 to $1,700 a month (the average in 2024 is $1,537). Higher earners who paid more FICA taxes or self-employment taxes will get a larger benefit (the maximum in 2024 is $3,822).

After collecting disability benefits for 24 months, you'll become eligible for Medicare, regardless of your age (if you have ESRD or ALS, you can get it sooner). In the meantime, if your income is low, you may qualify for Medicaid.

Non-Medical Requirements for Disability Benefits

Not all workers who pay Social Security taxes and who are eligible for Social Security retirement at age 62 are eligible for Social Security disability insurance benefits.

To be eligible for 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'll need to be insured for SSDI depends on your age and the year you become disabled. You must also have worked at least some part of five of the last ten years before you become disabled. (We'll discuss who qualifies for Social Security disability in detail below.)

In addition, you shouldn't be working a substantial amount when you apply for benefits, or you won't be considered disabled enough to qualify for Social Security benefits. If you're still working, you can't earn more than the "substantial gainful activity" (SGA) limit. The SGA limit is $1,550 per month in 2024 for disabled applicants and $2,590 for blind or low vision applicants. Besides this limit on earnings, SSDI doesn't have an income limit for eligibility on money like interest income, income earned by your spouse, pensions, and gifts from family or friends.

Finally, you must be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident, or fit into an exception, to be eligible for SSDI benefits. Briefly, veterans and active-duty members of the U.S. military can qualify if they aren't permanent residents, as can certain people who are lawfully present in the U.S. and meet certain other criteria.

Financial Eligibility for SSDI Benefits

Workers must pass two different earnings tests to qualify for Social Security disability benefits: a "duration of work" test and a "recent work" test.

Duration of Work Test

Social Security reviews your work history to make sure that you paid into the Social Security system for a long enough period throughout your working life to be eligible for Social Security disability. The following table shows how much work you need to meet this "duration of work" test at different ages of disability onset.

For example, if you become disabled at age 50, you need to have worked seven years to be eligible for disability benefits. If you're 58 years old when you become unable to work, you need to have worked nine years.

Duration of Work Test

If you become disabled…

Then you generally need

Before age 28

1.5 years of work

Age 30

2 years

Age 34

3 years

Age 38

4 years

Age 42

5 years

Age 44

5.5 years

Age 46

6 years

Age 48

6.5 years

Age 50

7 years

Age 52

7.5 years

Age 54

8 years

Age 56

8.5 years

Age 58

9 years

Age 60

9.5 years

Age 62

10 years

Recent Work Test

Most people need to have worked five of the last ten years, or at least part of those years, to get 20 "work credits" to pass the recent work test.

Social Security's rules were historically based on calendar quarters (for example, one quarter is January through March). But today, it doesn't matter whether you work during each calendar quarter. You simply get one quarter's worth of credit for each $1,640 of work that you do each year. You can get up to four work credits in a year if you do at least $6,560 of work that year.

If you're 31 or older, you need to have 20 work credits, earned in the last 10 years, to qualify for SSDI benefits. But if you become disabled when you're younger, you don't need quite so many credits, as this chart explains:

Recent Work Test

If you become disabled…

Then you generally need to have worked

When you turn age 24 or before

during one and a half years out of the three-year period before your disability began

After you turn age 24 but before age 31

during half of the years since you turned 21

When you turn age 31 or later

during five years out of the ten-year period before your disability began

For example, if you become disabled when you turn age 29, you need to have at least four years of work during the eight-year period before you became disabled.

Note: If you're blind or have low vision that meets Social Security's vision listing, you don't have to meet the recent work test.

Can You Lose Work Credits?

You'll never lose work credits—they'll always stay on your record—but they could "expire" for the purposes of SSDI's recent work test. If you haven't worked in the last five years, the point at which you worked five of the last ten years is what Social Security calls your "date last insured." To qualify for SSDI, your disability onset date (the day your disability started) needs to be before your date last insured (DLI).

Medical Eligibility for SSDI: How the SSA Defines Disability

A crucial part of claiming benefits under the Social Security disability insurance program is proving that you're severely disabled. A severe disability is a physical or mental condition that prevents you from doing any work for at least a year (or that's expected to be terminal).

The determination of whether you're 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, doesn't necessarily mean that the SSA will agree that you're disabled.

The SSA evaluates disability claims using its own medical experts and claims examiners. These decision-makers use a list of physical and mental conditions in the "Blue Book" to determine if your condition is severe enough for an automatic approval of benefits. If it's not, they'll use evaluations of your "residual functional capacity" to decide whether you're disabled. In all, Social Security uses five steps to determine if your medical condition meets the definition of disability.

Eligibility of Your Family Members

Members of your immediate family may also qualify for Social Security benefits based on your work, if you qualify for benefits. They include:

  • your spouse, at age 62 or older
  • your spouse or former spouse, at any age, who is caring for a child of yours who is younger than age 16 or disabled
  • your unmarried child who is under age 18, or under age 19 if in secondary school full time, and
  • your unmarried child who is age 18 or older, if they have a disability that started before age 22 ("adult child" benefits).

Your former spouse may also qualify for benefits based on your earnings record if you were married for at least 10 years and your ex is not currently married. The money paid to a divorced spouse does not reduce your benefit or any benefits owed to a current spouse or children.

Read more about dependent spousal benefits and children's benefits.

What If Social Security Denies Your Disability Claim?

The good news is that, if you're denied benefits because the SSA says you're not disabled, you have a good chance of winning on appeal. Often you need to appear in person at a hearing and show the judge more evidence of your disability.

The notice you received from Social Security denying your benefits will include information on how to appeal the decision. You only have 60 days to appeal, so don't miss the deadline. To learn more about successfully appealing Social Security benefit denials, read our article on appealing denied disability claims.

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