The Ultimate Disability Benefits Guidebook
Social Security disability benefits (SSD) provide an important safety net for workers who become unable to earn a living due to illness or a non-workplace injury. The first step toward receiving the disability benefits you need is to understand what SSD benefits are, who is eligible for them, and how to qualify and start receiving benefits.
What is SSD?
SSD is a disability insurance program for people who work and contribute to the Social Security system before becoming disabled. Like Social Security retirement benefits, SSD benefits are only available to those who have earned sufficient work credits and certain dependents under certain circumstances.
If an application for SSD is approved, the disabled worker will receive monthly benefits based on their past earnings. SSD recipients are also eligible for Medicare, but there is a two-year waiting period. SSD benefits continue for as long as the recipient remains disabled, up to retirement age. At full retirement age, the recipient is shifted to retirement benefits.
The first step in determining whether you may be eligible for SSD benefits is to ensure that you have the required number of work credits. The amount of earnings required to earn a work credit changes from year to year. In 2023, it is $1,640. However, you can only earn four work credits per year.
For most disabled workers, the minimum requirement is 40 work credits or the equivalent of 10 years of work. The applicant must also have a minimum number of “recent” work credits. For most applicants, that means 20 credits (5 years) within the past 10 years. However, the requirements are scaled back if the applicant became disabled at age 31 or younger since they did not have time to fulfill the usual work credit requirement.
Your Resources and Non-Work Income are Not Considered
SSD isn’t a public benefit dependent on need. You’ve paid into Social Security while you were working, and are entitled to your disability insurance benefits if you meet the eligibility criteria. The SSA will not look at your bank accounts, the value of your home, or any other asset. They don’t care how much your spouse earns, and they don’t care about any income you may have as long as it doesn’t come from work.
Meeting the Definition of Disability
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has its own standards for determining disability. To decide whether you are disabled under the SSA’s definition, they will first look at whether you are currently working. SSD is for people who are unable to engage in “substantial gainful activity ” (SGA). In 2023, the SSA considers you able to engage in SGA if you can earn at least $1,470/month ($2,460 if you are blind). If you are already earning more than that from work, you won’t qualify. Note, though, that the fact that you are earning less than the SGA threshold (or even earning nothing at all) doesn’t necessarily mean you are unable to do so.
Next, the SSA considers whether your condition substantially interferes with the ability to perform basic work tasks, and is expected to last for at least 12 months.
Then, the SSA will look to see whether your condition meets the criteria for the relevant listing in the Social Security Blue Book, or equals a listed condition. If you don’t meet that criteria, you may still be eligible for SSD if the Social Security Administration finds that you are unable to work. That’s a two-step process. First, they look at whether you can perform the work you have performed in the past. If not, they will consider whether there are other jobs you could do. This determination takes a variety of factors into account, such as the type of work you have done in the past, your age, and your educational level.
There are also some special considerations that can impact your eligibility. For example, if you are addicted to drugs or alcohol and that addiction contributes significantly to your disability, you won’t be eligible for benefits unless the SSA determines that you would still be disabled if you beat the addiction and stopped using substances.
What is the Difference Between SSD and SSI?
SSI, or Supplemental Security Income, isn’t a specifically disability-based program. And, it isn’t dependent on work history. Instead, SSI is funded by the federal government. Benefits are available to anyone who is blind, disabled, or age 65 or older and meets financial requirements. However, the financial limits are quite restrictive.
Unlike SSD, the SSI assessment of assets and income takes in everything except a few excluded types of property such as the home you live in, one vehicle you use for transportation, and household goods. The asset limit for an individual is $2,000, and for a couple, it is $3,000.
The maximum SSI monthly benefit in 2023 is $914. The SSA applies a formula to determine whether you are eligible to receive benefits and in what amount. The formula excludes the first $20 of income and then a percentage of earned income to find “countable income.” Then, the countable income is subtracted from the maximum monthly benefit to find the amount you are eligible for.
Applying for SSD Benefits
In theory, applying for SSD benefits is simple. You can complete and file your application online, and the SSA provides a checklist. In reality, assembling the documentation needed for a successful application can be complicated. That’s one reason most SSD applications are initially denied. Many of those applications are eventually approved in the reconsideration or appeals process. But, that process can delay receipt of benefits by many months, or even years. And, if you miss a deadline to request reconsideration or appeal, you will have to start over. When that happens, you can lose out on back benefits that might have been available.
Because it’s easy to make mistakes that can result in denial or significant delays, it’s in your best interest to work with an experienced disability benefits advocate from the start. At Disability Help Group, we understand the type of documentation required to give you the best chance at approval of your initial claim. If you’ve already been denied and want to begin or are in the appeals process, we can help identify what went wrong with your original application and determine what additional information would be helpful in strengthening your claim.
To learn more about how we can help, call 800-800-3332 right now, or fill out our contact form here.