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 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.
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 also 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 $1,300 to $1,700 a month. Higher earners who paid higher FICA taxes will get a larger benefit.
After collecting disability benefits for 24 months, you'll become eligible for Medicare, regardless of your age. In the meantime, if your income is low, you may qualify for Medicaid.
The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is run by the SSA, but it's 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 purposes, however, you must meet all of the following four criteria:
If your application is approved, your SSI benefits will include cash payments of $943 per month for an individual or $1,415 per month for a couple (in 2024), 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 states, you'll also automatically become eligible for Medicaid and food stamps once you're approved for SSI.
A crucial part of claiming benefits under either Social Security program is proving that you're severely disabled—that is, that you have a physical or mental condition that prevents you from doing any substantial "gainful activity" (work) and that will last at least one year or will cause your death.
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 for both SSDI and SSI claims using its own medical experts and claims examiners. These decision-makers use a list of physical and mental conditions and evaluations of your "residual functional capacity" to determine whether you're disabled. The listings for many of the medical conditions that qualify for disability are explained on Nolo's website in the section on specific disabilities.
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 more evidence of your disability. To learn more about successfully appealing Social Security benefit denials, read Nolo's article Social Security: How to Appeal Denied Claims.