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What Is Social Security Disability?

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are Social Security 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 benefits.

What Is Social Security Disability?

Social Security disability benefits are available to people who become disabled before reaching full retirement age. 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). 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 Social Security Administration 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 job-centric 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 Eligibility Requirements for SSDI and SSI

What Is Social Security Disability?

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 monthly SSDI benefit amount. The maximum benefit for 2020 is $3,011 per month, but the average is around $1,258.

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:

  • $1,651 for an individual whose income comes from wages
  • $803 for someone whose income does not come from wages
  • $2,435 for a couple whose income comes from wages
  • $1,195 for a couple whose income does not come from wages

The Social Security Administration 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 benefit amount for SSI is based on the federal benefit rate, which is $783 for individuals and $1,175 for couples in 2020. That is the maximum monthly payment you’ll receive, though some exclusions may apply that may lower your benefit payment.

How to Apply for Social Security Disability

What Is Social Security Disability?

The Social Security Administration 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 Social Security Administration 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.

Retirement Planning Tips

  • Financial advisors can help you navigate Social Security and other sources of retirement income. Finding the right advisor that fits your needs doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, 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/Bill Oxford, ©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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