Overview of the SSDI Program

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a federal program administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) that pays monthly benefits to you if you are disabled and unable to work.

The SSDI program requires that you have worked a certain length of time and paid Social Security taxes in order to be eligible for disability benefits, unlike Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which also pays benefits to people who are disabled and unable to work but is based on limited income and resources. Along with having worked a certain number of years, you also must have a medical condition that meets the SSA’s definition of disability. It's important to understand this requirement, because the SSA’s definition of disability is more limited than what many people think a disability is.

Work Credit Requirement

In order to qualify for SSDI benefits, you need to have earned a certain number of work credits. Work credits are based on the income you make every year. The total number of work credits you need to qualify for SSDI benefits depends on how old you were when you became disabled.

Example: If you became disabled before the age of 24, you need six work credits. These must have been earned in the three years right before you became disabled. If you became disabled at age 62 or older, you need 40 work credits, and 20 of those must have been earned in the ten years right before you became disabled.

For information on the exact number of work credits needed to be eligible for disability benefits, see our article on work credits and SSDI. (And if you not a U.S. citizen, see our article on noncitizen eligibility for SSDI.)

Disability Requirement

As noted above, the definition of “disability” for the purposes of SSDI eligibility is quite narrow. SSDI benefits are only eligible for someone with a total disability. If you are partially disabled or have a short-term disability, you will not be eligible for SSDI benefits. There are several requirements you must meet to receive SSDI benefits:

  • You are not able to perform "substantial gainful activity" (SGA)
  • You cannot do the work that you used to do
  • Your medical condition prevents you from doing other types of work, and
  • Your disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year or to result in death.

If you are currently working and make over a certain amount (in 2011, that amount is $1,000 a month for nonblind applicants), the SSA will find that you're performing SGA and that you are not disabled enough to qualify for SSDI benefits.

Your condition must also be “severe.” The SSA defines a severe condition as one that interferes with basic work-related activities. SSA has a list of medical conditions that are so severe they automatically mean that you are disabled. If your condition is not on that list (called the Listing of Impairments), the SSA will determine if your condition is equal in severity to one of the conditions on the list.

If your condition doesn't meet or equal one of the conditions on the SSA's list of impairments (most don't), you can still prove that your disability limits your functional capacity so much that there are no jobs you can do.

About SSDI Benefits

You will not receive SSDI benefits until you have been disabled for five complete months. Payments usually start with your sixth month of disability. Benefits are paid each month, and the specific day you will get your benefits each month depends on your birthday.

You will keep getting your disability benefits as long as your medical condition has not improved and you cannot work. The SSA will periodically review your medical condition to see if your condition has improved and you are able to return to work. The frequency of medical reviews depends on how severe your condition is and the chances that your condition will improve. If the SSA decides you no longer are disabled and you do not appeal the decision, your benefits will stop three months after the SSA decides that your disability ended.

Each January, SSA takes into account whether there have been cost of living increases, and your benefits may go up.

If your household income is over a certain amount, you will have to pay taxes on your disability benefits.

Changes in Your Life

If there are certain changes in your life, you have to report them right away to SSA. Common reportable changes include: your condition improves, you receive other government benefits, you move, you start a job, you get married or divorced, you leave the United States, and you are convicted of a crime.

If You Are Denied Disability Benefits

If your application for SSDI is not approved, you don't have to give up hope, but you do have to act quickly. Once the SSA makes a decision about your eligibility for benefits, they will send you a letter letting you know their decision. If you would like to appeal the decision, you must request a review of the decision within 60 days of when you receive the letter. You can request an appeal on SSA’s website at https://secure.ssa.gov/apps6z/iAppeals/ap001.jsp. If you do not want to appeal online, you can also call your local Social Security office and explain that you want to appeal the decision but do not want to do it online.

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