How Social Security Disability Benefits Work

elderly woman with nurse
Alexander Raths /

Not being able to work can be financially devastating. Social Security disability benefits were created to temporarily or permanently help individuals who are disabled or have a severe medical condition. If you’re collecting disability payments when you reach your full retirement age, the Social Security Administration converts them into retirement benefits.

To qualify for disability benefits you must have worked at a job covered by Social Security and have a medical disability in line with the organization’s requirements. Familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of this resource — because you could compromise your livelihood if you do not understand how to maximize your Social Security benefits.

Social Security Disability Benefits

The SSA administers two programs for those with disabilities, serious medical conditions and severe financial hardship. The federally funded programs offer different types of disability benefits — disability insurance and supplemental security income.

1. Social Security Disability Insurance: The Social Security benefits tax your employer withholds from your paycheck — or the tax you pay if you’re self-employed — funds the SSDI program. SSDI pays you — and in some cases, your dependents — benefits under these circumstances:

  • You’re disabled or have a serious medical condition.
  • You have worked long enough.
  • You or your employer paid your Social Security taxes.

Find Out: When You Have to Pay Taxes on Social Security Benefits

2. Supplemental Security Income: The SSI disability benefits program — funded by the U.S. Treasury and personal and corporate income taxes — provides monthly cash payments to eligible recipients. Effective Jan. 1, 2017, the SSI benefit amount is $735 per month for individuals and $1,103 for couples. To be eligible for SSI, you must:

  • Be blind
  • Be disabled
  • Be age 65 or older
  • Have annual financial resources of less than $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples
Are You Retirement Ready?

Social Security Disability Status

The SSA’s definition of disability is very strict and doesn’t cover short-term disability or illness. To get disability benefits you must meet these conditions:

  • Your disability or medical condition lasts more than a year or will result in certain death.
  • You’re unable to perform any type of work.

The SSA monitors SSDI benefits closely. It determines if you meet the medical criteria by:

  • Checking your medical records and medications
  • Reviewing your work history and education to determine if you can perform another type of job

Related: 10 Major Tax Credits and Deductions for Disabled Tax Filers

SSDI Work Requirement

SS checks if you have worked long — and recently — enough to have paid for disability benefits. Eligibility is determined based on:

  • Your age
  • When you stopped working
  • When your disability or illness began
  • The number of work credits you’ve accumulated

Work credits are determined by your annual income — the minimum annual income necessary to earn one work credit varies yearly, and you can earn a maximum of four work credits in a year. For 2016, if your annual income exceeded $5,040 you earned four work credits.

To qualify for disability benefits you typically need 40 credits, 20 of which you earned in the last 10 years — ending with the year you became disabled. Younger workers might qualify with fewer credits.

Applying for SSDI Benefits

You can use the SSA’s online application to apply for SSDI or call its toll-free number and talk to an agent. Some of the documents you’ll need to apply include:

  • Social Security card
  • Birth certificate
  • Medical records
  • Work history
  • Tax records or most recent W-2
  • List of medications
Are You Retirement Ready?

SSDI Benefit Payments

If you are approved for SSDI, your benefits start during the sixth month your disability began. For example, if your disability began in January, then you would be eligible for payments in June.

Your Social Security earnings determine the amount you’ll get in benefits. Use the benefits calculator on the SSA website to determine yours. If you receive workers compensation, veteran’s benefits or other state or disability benefits, your Social Security disability benefits can be reduced.

Learn: 7 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Social Security

Family Benefits

SSDI offers family benefits to spouses, children, divorced spouses, disabled children and adult children who are disabled before they turn 22. Each family member might be eligible for a monthly benefit of up to 50 percent of your disability benefit, and the total amount you and your family can receive is 150 to 180 percent of your benefit. For your family to receive benefits you need to provide additional documentation to the SSA.

Related: How to Get Social Security Survivor Benefits


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