Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) fall under the same blanket of programs administered by the Social Security Association (SSA) with the intended purpose of tackling poverty in vulnerable communities. For people with disabilities or seniors with little to no income and resources, these programs offer much needed financial assistance. 

There is room for some confusion, however, for how the US government, and more specifically, the SSA, define disability and what makes a disabled person eligible for these benefits. There are also some who confuse SSDI with SSI, so let’s first dive into what the SSDI program is.

What exactly is SSDI? And How Does the Government Define Disability?

Social Security Disability Insurance is a social government program that supports individuals who are disabled and have eligible work history.

We all understand what a disability is, but it is important to differentiate our knowledge from what the US government thinks a disability is. According to the US Code of law, a disability refers to an individual who has a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”. 

Major life activities are defined as breathing, walking, speaking, using any of the five senses, eating, sleeping, learning, or any daily activity vital to living. The Code also specifies that such disabilities are not extended to “minor” impairments or “transitory” impairments which are anything below a 6 month threshold.

If you fit the criteria of the US’s definition – and thereby, Social Security’s definition – of disability, you may be eligible for SSDI benefits.

Determining Eligibility

In order to be eligible for SSDI benefits, a person must have:

  • Social Security covered in their work history 
  • a medical condition that meets Social Security’s strict definition of disability.

SSDI benefits are paid monthly via check or direct deposit to anyone who is unable to work for a year or more because of a disability. There is typically a 5-month waiting period and the first benefit is paid on the sixth full month after the date that the SSA finds that your disability began.

Your benefits may be paid as far back as 12 months before you apply if the SSA finds that you had a disability during that time and you meet all other requirements. If you have reached full retirement age, your disability benefits are converted to retirement benefits.

You’ll also need to be aware of your work credits. Social Security work credits are credits you accrue after years of paying social security taxes and based on your total yearly wages or self-employment income. The amount of work credits will vary year to year. In 2023, at the time of this being written, a person on SSDI would earn exactly 1 credit for every $1,640 earned in wages or any self-employment income. The SSA maxes out your work credits at 4 per year, which you would earn by the time you’ve made $6,560. 

To qualify for SSDI, you’ll need 40 credits, 20 of which will need to have been made in the last 10 years. There is an exception for those whose disability started in childhood or at a young age where fewer credits are acceptable. 

It should be noted that the amount of credits you hold does not determine or change the amount of benefits you receive. Your credits won’t disappear either if you stop working, so long as you still pay Social Security taxes or return to work at some point and you will continue earning from wherever you left off.

As a disabled person, you should not need more than 40 credits to qualify for retirement benefits or survivor benefits either.

What Makes SSDI Different from SSI?

Eligibility is really the key difference between SSDI and SSI. SSI does not determine eligibility based on work credits, but rather it is decided by other external factors like your living situation, income outside of work, age, or disability.

Essentially, SSDI is earned benefit whereas SSI is more of a safety net program. They are different means to the same end. 

The other key difference is the health insurance coverage packaged with each benefit. With SSI, one can immediately qualify for healthcare through the Medicaid program, whereas with SSDI, one would qualify for Medicare after 24 months. 

Besides that, both programs use the same medical criteria to determine disability and offer much of the same financial benefits to disabled persons or individuals with little to no income or resources.

How Can I Receive SSDI?

If you feel that you meet the requirements listed above, you can submit an application to the SSA on their website. If you have recently become disabled, you are encouraged to apply as soon as possible. The SSA determines when your disability began, and you will not receive benefits until after a five month waiting period. The SSA will make an exception for individuals with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more popularly known as ALS, and those individuals will not be given a waiting period.

You or your caregiver can follow the instructions online or call a toll free-number in the event that the application cannot be completed online.

What if My SSDI Application is Rejected?

The SSA will send a notice about your SSDI application being denied. They may claim it is because you do not meet their definition of “disabled” or you do not have enough work credits. If you disagree with these determinations, you can hire a lawyer to dispute these claims. You and your attorney may be requested to file an action within 60 days of the SSA’s notice that you’ve been denied. If your claim reaches the next three stages of appeal, you’ll have 60 days between the final decision of each appeal to file a new claim/action.

An administrative law attorney will be well versed in social security disability policy, and will have knowledgeable experience to help you through every phase of your appeal.

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