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Social Security Disability: A Guide to SSI and SSDI

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are programs offered by the federal government that are designed to provide monthly payments for disabled Americans. The approval processes for each are fairly complex, though, and you must meet certain standards to qualify. Therefore, it’s extremely important to plan ahead and know the eligibility rules if you think you’ll need to take advantage of these offerings. It’s also a good idea to work with a financial advisor who specializes in Social Security and other retirement benefits.

Understanding SSDI and SSI

The Social Security Administration (SSA), a federal government agency, offers Social Security disability through two different programs: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Social Security disability benefits are available to people who become disabled before reaching full retirement age. The two programs can overlap, but also have key differences.

SSDI is a program for those who become sick or injured and cannot work. Unlike with other insurance programs, you don’t pay a premium. You pay a Social Security tax with each paycheck and that money funds the program. You can stay on SSDI for as long as you are disabled, until you reach retirement age and start to claim regular retirement benefits. Past income determines the level of benefits.

SSI, meanwhile, is for people who have either a disability or are blind and have little income. Unlike SSDI, income from SSI is not based on past work history. Rather, recipients receive a set amount. This program is funded by general tax dollars, not Social Security taxes. Recipients must have a low income and cannot have many valuable assets. People over the age of 65 can also qualify for SSI.

How Does the SSA Define “Disabled”?

There are many ways to perceive a word like “disabled.” However, the SSA has its own set of rigorous stipulations that it uses to determine who’s disabled and who’s not when it comes to benefits. Although it might seem obvious, the first rule is that you must have a “disabling condition.” Here’s some things this can mean:

  • Your condition must have lasted or be expected to last for at least 12 months consecutively
  • Your condition is expected to result in death

The SSA further requires that applicants meet a couple of other work qualifications, including:

  • Your condition is stopping you from doing the job you’ve done in the past and are qualified to continue doing (the SSA considers age, work history and education for this)
  • Your condition prevents you from completing normal work tasks like remembering information, lifting, walking, sitting and standing

The SSA maintains what it calls the “Blue Book.” This contains a plethora of medical impairments that almost always qualify for Social Security disability coverage. If your condition doesn’t fall into any of the categories in the Blue Book, you can still meet this requirement by having a condition that’s medically equivalent to one that is in the document. Below you’ll find a list of some of the main impairment categories:

  • Immune system disorders
  • Mental disorders
  • Neurological disorders
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Special senses and speech
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Digestive system

2020 SSDI and SSI Benefit Amounts and Limits

Social Security Disability: A Guide to SSI and SSDI

To qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance, you must have enough Social Security work credits. The amount of time you’ve worked and your salary determine how many credits you have. Your age determines the number of credits you need. Generally, you need fewer credits the younger you are.

Your work and income history determines your SSDI benefit amount. According to June 2020 data from the SSA, the average monthly payment is $1,259. However, consider this in the context of the 2020 individual Social Security monthly benefit limit of $3,011, which includes all SSA retirement and disability benefits.

Supplemental Security Income is for those who have a disabling condition and a low income. Unlike SSDI, you can work a job with a regular wage and still earn SSI, but your income must fall below a certain threshold. Those over the age of 65 with limited income and resources may also qualify, as can disabled children.

The monthly income limits for 2020 go as follows:

  • Individuals
    • Unearned income: $803
    • Overall income: $1,651
  • Couples
    • Unearned income: $1,195
    • Overall income: $2,435

The SSA also considers resources, which it defines as “something that you own and can turn into cash,” like property, stocks, bonds and bank accounts. It does not count the house in which you live or one of your vehicles used for transportation. The limits for resources are $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple.

The monthly benefit amount for SSI is based on the federal benefit rate. For 2020, these are $783 for individuals, $1,175 for couples and $392 for essential persons. These are the maximum monthly payments, though exclusions may apply that can lower your benefits.

How to Apply for SSDI and SSI

Social Security Disability: A Guide to SSI and SSDI

The SSA handles the application processes for both SSI and SSDI. You can complete the application online, or you can call 1-800-722-1212 to begin. Applicants can also visit a local Social Security office and apply in person.

Whichever way you apply, you’ll need to provide some personal information, such as:

  • Your Social Security number and proof of age
  • Names and addresses of doctors and other healthcare professionals
  • Medical information and records, including any relevant prescriptions, doctor’s reports and more
  • Related lab and test results
  • Summary of your work history
  • W-2 forms and federal tax returns
  • Proof of marriage and the Social Security number of your spouse and any former spouses

Bottom Line

The SSA offers Social Security disability through two programs: Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. Disabled individuals who are below retirement age and cannot work are eligible for SSDI, while SSI is for both adults and children. Each Social Security disability program has high approval standards. If you have questions about either, consider consulting with a financial advisor.

Social Security Tips

  • Financial advisors can help you navigate Social Security and other sources of retirement income. Finding the right advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool can match you with up to three financial advisors in your area in just five minutes. Get started now.
  • Social Security retirement benefits also depend on your work and income history. See what you stand to earn with our Social Security calculator.

Photo Credit: ©iStock.com/zimmytws, ©iStock.com/Roman Valiev, ©iStock.com/PeopleImage

Ben Geier, CEPF® Ben Geier is an experienced financial writer currently serving as a retirement and investing expert at SmartAsset. His work has appeared on Fortune, Mic.com and CNNMoney. Ben is a graduate of Northwestern University and a part-time student at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®). When he isn’t helping people understand their finances, Ben likes watching hockey, listening to music and experimenting in the kitchen. Originally from Alexandria, VA, he now lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
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