Who Qualifies for SSDI? Eligibility, Benefits and More

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Developing a chronic illness can change your life. You’ll likely start attending more medical appointments, making more pharmacy visits and undergoing more treatments. You may need to start working less often due to these appointments and the side effects of your health condition. Becoming disabled is another life event that can change where, how and whether you’re able to work.

If you’re no longer able to work or you’re working less due to a disability, SSDI is one form of assistance that can help ease the financial changes you’re going through. To find out if it’s right for your needs, learn more about the basics of SSDI, how to qualify and more. 

What Is SSDI, and How Does It Work?

SSDI is an acronym for Social Security Disability Insurance. It’s a national program overseen by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and local field offices in each state. The SSA is the same agency that distributes retirement benefits commonly known as Social Security.

Each time you receive a paycheck, there are payroll deductions for Social Security. You pay into the Social Security program as long as you work. This is like a form of insurance for you down the road; when you retire, you start receiving Social Security checks as long as you’ve paid into the system for the minimum amount of time. 

If you become disabled and you have enough work credits, you can receive monthly payments from the SSA. These payments are a percentage of the income you earned before your disability. The percentage you receive depends on your age and work credits. The older you are and the longer your work history is, the higher the benefits are that you typically receive.

The amount of money you earn from your employment determines your work credits. But, the number of dollars you need to make to earn one work credit can change each year. In 2022, an employee with an annual income of at least $6,040 will earn four work credits. Four is the maximum number of credits you can earn each year.

Work credits need to be recent to count. The number of credits you need and the period that qualifies as recent depends on your age. Generally, you need more credits if you’re older, and a shorter length of time qualifies as recent if you’re younger. 

SSDI benefits are rarely 100% of the income you earned before your disability. However, these benefits provide income to cover some of the costs of your medical expenses while you’re unable to work. They continue as long as your qualifying disability prevents you from working.

What Are the Eligibility Requirements for SSDI? 

SSDI eligibility depends on your work credits and your level of ability to work due to a disability. According to the SSA, a person who’s considered disabled meets the following criteria:

  • They cannot do their job because of a health condition.
  • They’re unable to physically perform other jobs because of that condition.
  • The health condition is expected to continue for at least one year.

The SSA publishes a list of medical conditions that often lead to disability. Having one of these conditions doesn’t automatically qualify you for SSDI. The condition must prevent you from being able to do your job or a job that would otherwise be suitable.

If you have dependent children, they may also be eligible to receive SSDI payments.

How Is SSDI Different From SSI?

SSDI is often confused with SSI, which is an acronym for Supplemental Security Income. Both SSDI and SSI are disability benefits with oversight from the SSA. The two programs help people care for their needs if they cannot work or can’t work as much due to a disability. However, they differ in the financial situations they apply to and the benefits they offer.

Like retirement benefits from the SSA, SSDI is based on your work history. Depending on how much you earn, deductions from each paycheck go to the SSA. If you become disabled after working long enough, you can receive disability benefits proportional to the payroll deductions you’ve contributed. You qualify for SSDI by having worked enough in the past and having a disability in the present.

For SSI, you qualify by having a disability and not earning above a certain amount of money. These combined circumstances can lead to financial instability. So, many states automatically enroll SSI recipients in additional social services, such as Medicaid and SNAP.

Having an income below certain thresholds is an important element of SSI eligibility. However, anyone with enough work credits can qualify for SSDI if they have a disability. You can work while receiving either SSDI or SSI. However, there are limits to how much you can earn.

Some people reach retirement age during the time they’re on SSDI. If this happens to you, you’ll continue to receive the same monthly benefit. However, it’ll come as a retirement benefit rather than SSDI.

How to Apply for SSDI

You can visit a field office to apply for SSDI. You can also complete an SSDI application form online or over the phone. The application process requires various pieces of documentation. You’ll need to verify your identity, disability, financial status, domestic situation and work history. To do so, you’ll likely be asked for the following items:

  • You need information about your jobs for up to 15 years before you became disabled.
  • You need more details about your employment from the previous two years.
  • There are extensive questions about your work history and the specific duties of your job.
  • You also need medical documentation to prove the existence and extent of your disability.
  • You need birth documents for yourself and any dependent children up to 19 if they’re in college. This age moves to 22 if dependent children have disabilities.
  • If you’ve ever served in the armed forces, you need to submit your service records and discharge documentation.

As part of the application for SSDI, you need to appoint an alternate contact. This is an individual you authorize to assist you with SSDI forms and communicating with the SSA. Since the process can be very involved, the SSA publishes a helpful checklist for applying for disability benefits.

Although you file your application with the SSA, it doesn’t provide final approval. Your state’s Disability Determination Services office makes the final decision on whether you qualify.