A Guide to Social Security Disability (SSDI)

A basic primer on getting social security disability benefits.

Social Security disability (referred to as SSD or SSDI) is a federal benefit that provides income for people who the Social Security Administration (SSA) determines are disabled. But to qualify for SSDI, you must have insured status for Social Security benefits.

How Do I Become Insured for SSDI?

To be eligible for SSDI payments when you become disabled, you must have worked for quite a few years at a job at which you and the employer paid Social Security taxes (or where you paid self-employment taxes on your own). But it is not enough to be fully insured for Social Security retirement benefits. To be insured for SSDI, you must pass two “earnings” tests.

The first test is the “recent work” test; this test requires you to have worked within a certain period of time of becoming disabled more on this below. The second test is the “duration of work” test; this test requires you to work a certain number of years or earn a certain number of work credits prior to becoming disabled. Both tests are dependent on how old you were when your disability began.

What Is a Work Credit?

One work credit is given for every $1,220 you earn (in the year 2015). You can earn a maximum of four credits per year. This means that you only have to earn $4,800 annually to receive the maximum number of work credits for that year.

The number of work credits you earn does not indicate the amount of your benefits.

How Do I Pass the Recent Work Test?

Here are the requirements for meeting the “recent work” test, depending on your age.

When you became disabled

The length of time you must have worked prior to becoming disabled needed to meet the “recent work” requirements

Before the age of 24.

You must have worked one and a half years during the three-year period before you became disabled (or have earned six credits in the last three years).

Between the ages of 24 and 31.

You must have worked at least half the time since you turned 21 up until the time when you became disabled (or have earned 18 work credits in the past four and a half years). For example, if you became disabled at the age of 30, you must have worked four and a half years of the last nine years.

31 and older.

You must have worked five of the last ten years before you became disabled (or earned 20 work credits).

How Do I Pass the Duration of Work Test?

Here are the requirements for meeting the “duration of work” test.

Age you became disabled

Number of years of work and credits needed

Before age 28

1.5 years (6 work credits)

Age 30

2 years (8 work credits)

Age 34

3 years (12 work credits)

Age 38

4 years (16 work credits)

Age 42

5 years (20 work credits)

Age 44

5.5 years (22 work credits)

Age 46

6 years (24 work credits)

Age 48

6.5 years (26 work credits)

Age 50

7 years (28 work credits)

Age 52

7.5 years (30 work credits)

Age 54

8 years (32 work credits)

Age 56

8.5 years (34 work credits)

Age 58

9 years (36 work credits)

Age 60

9.5 years (38 work credits)

Age 62 or older

10 years (40 work credits)

What Counts as a Disability?

In order to be eligible for disability, you cannot be working at or above the substantial gainful activity level (SGA). For 2015, SGA is defined as earning $1,090 a month from work. Also, your medical condition must be severe enough to prevent you from working at the SGA level for at least 12 consecutive months.

The SSA has a list of physical and mental medical conditions that are so severe they will automatically qualify you for disability benefits -- if your condition meets the criteria for that condition. If your condition is not on that list (called the Listing of Impairments, or "blue book"), the SSA will look at your limitations and your past job duties and skills to see whether you should be able to go back to your old job, or if not, whether there is other less demanding work that you can learn to do. If you are of a certain age, in certain situations you will automatically considered disabled if you don't have job skills you could transfer to another job. The SSA will look at how limited your education and your physical or mental capacity is in deciding whether you can transfer to another job.

How Do I Apply for SSDI?

There are three different ways you can apply for SSDI: online, in person, and by telephone.

Online. You can apply online at www.ssa.gov/pgm/disability.htm. Be sure to write down your application number because you will need it to return to your application or track its status. The SSA may call you or mail your forms for additional information.

In person. You can apply for benefits at your local field office. You can find your local field office on Social Security's website by entering your zip code into the locator. Some field offices require you to make an appointment; make sure you call the SSA before you go in. You can call 800-772-1213 to schedule an appointment (or to ask any other questions).

By telephone. You can apply for disability benefits by phone at the number above. This is often helpful for people who have difficulty traveling or who live too far from their local field office. If you are deaf or hearing impaired, call 1-800-325-0778. You will need to provide your Social Security number when you apply.

What Happens if I Get Denied?

It is not uncommon for disability applicants to be denied at the initial application level. If you are denied, you should appeal the decision if you still can't work.

You have 60 days from the date you got the denial letter to ask that your claim be reconsidered. If your request for reconsideration is denied, you can ask that your claim be heard in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). You must ask for a hearing within 60 days from the date you received the letter denying your request for reconsideration. If the ALJ denies your claim, you have 60 days from the date you receive your denial letter to appeal the decision to the Appeals Council (AC). Once the AC receives your appeal it can either deny your request for review, reverse all or part of the ALJ’s decision, or send your claim back to the ALJ with instructions to reconsider certain evidence. If the AC decides not to review your claim, you can appeal its decision to the federal district court in your state.

Some states have streamlined the appeals process so that instead of filing a request for reconsideration, an appeal of an initial denial goes right to the hearing level. Call your local field office if you have questions about how your state handles the appeals process.

What If I Don’t Qualify for SSDI?

If you don’t qualify for SSDI, you may be eligible for Supplemental Security income (SSI). SSI provides benefits for people with limited income and resources. 

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer?

Social Security disability law does not require you to hire an attorney, even to go in front of a judge at a hearing. However, having a disability attorney at a hearing can make the difference between getting approved or denied for benefits. If you've waited many months or even years for a hearing, consider discussing your case with an attorney.

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