Social Security benefits are not only for full-time employees. Even those who worked a few hours a week before becoming disabled can be eligible, as long as they paid taxes to Social Security (or have low income and assets).
First, some basics: There are two types of disability payments available to people who meet the Social Security Administration's (SSA) requirements for disability: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSD) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSI is available to people who have little work history and meet the SSA's low income and asset limits. SSD is available to people who have worked enough while paying taxes to the SSA.
If you worked for a company that paid taxes on your behalf to the Social Security Administration (SSA), or you paid self-employment taxes to the SSA, you are eligible for SSD disability benefits if you earned enough work credits to be eligible for benefits.
You need to earn at least $1,130 to get one work credit, but the most credits you can get in a year are four. This means that you only have to earn $4,520 a year to receive the maximum number of credits. Even those who work less than a quarter of full time should be able to earn the maximum amount of credits each year.
Older workers need 40 credits to be eligible for SSD, which represents ten years worth of work. And 20 of those 40 credits must have been earned in the previous ten years, ending with the year the person became disabled. If you are 31 or younger, though, you can be eligible for SSD even if you have earned less than 40 work credits.
Workers 31 and over. For workers 31 years and older the SSA uses a chart to determine how many credits are needed to qualify for SSD. Here are some examples.
If you become disabled at the age of 48, you need 26 work credits.
Workers Younger than 31. The number of credits a worker 31 or under needs depends on how old the worker was when the disability started.
24 and under. If you become disabled before the age of 24, you must have earned six work credits in the previous three years, ending with the year your disability started.
24 to 31. If you become disabled between the ages of 24 and 31, you must have earned the maximum number of credits a year (four), for at least half the time between the age of 21 and the age you were when you became disabled.
You can look at the our complete work credit chart for more information.
Earning enough work credits only makes you eligible for benefits; it does not determine the amount of those benefits. Your SSD payment amount depends on how much you have earned. Working part-time will earn you less disability benefits than if you had worked full-time, since the benefit amount is based on your earnings.
The SSA uses a complex formula to figure out your SSD benefit amount. This formula determines your "average indexed monthly earnings" (AIME.) To figure out your AIME, the SSA uses a variety of factors such as:
You can review your estimated Social Security benefits on the SSA's website once you have created on online account.
Note that if you worked for a company that didn't pay taxes to the SSA or if you worked "under the table," these wages will not be considered—they will also not earn you credits.
Even if you haven't worked enough to be eligible for SSD, you may still qualify for SSI. To get SSI, you must meet certain income and asset limits. For more information see our section on how to qualify for SSI.
Having enough work credits to be eligible for SSD does not guarantee that you will be awarded benefits. To win your claim, you must prove that you are not working at the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level (this amount is $1,040 for 2013) and that your medical condition has, or will, prevent you from earning that amount for at least one year.
Learn more about your eligibility for disability benefits.