Social Security Disability Benefits Guide

A couple speaking with a doctor. By: Rhoda Baer

Disability Benefits

When it comes to receiving disability benefits, there are two programs you can use.

Social Security Disability Insurance Program  

This program pays benefits to you and certain family members if you worked long enough and paid Social Security Taxes. ( If you have an adult child, they may qualify for benefits on your earnings if they have a disability that started before the age of 22.)

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)   

Pays benefits to disabled adults and children who have a limited income and or resources. Social Security provides a Printable Starter Kit for those who wish to apply for disability benefits.

Qualifying For Disability Benefits

The medical requirements are the same under both programs. Disability is determined by the same process. Social Security has a very strict definition of disability. 

To be Found Disabled:

  • You must be unable to do any work substantially due to your medical condition or conditions. 
  • Your medical conditions must have or be expected to last at least a year, or be expected to result in your death. 

Five Questions That Determine Your Disability 

  • Are you working? - If your earnings average more than $1,220 a month, you generally cannot be considered disabled. 
  • Is your condition considered to be “severe”? - Your condition must significantly limit your ability to do basic work such as standing, lifting, sitting and walking, and remembering for at least 12 months. 
  • Does your condition fall into the list of disabling conditions? - This is determined by two different types of listed impairments: Part A, and Part B.   
  • Can you do the work you had done previously? - Social Security decides whether or not your impairment prevents you from performing any work you’ve done in the past. 
  • Can you do any other type of work? - If you can’t do the work you have done in the past, it will be determined if you can find other work you can do despite your impairments. 

(You are not automatically qualified to receive Social Security disability if you are already receiving benefit payments from your job or another agency.)

Social Security Disability (SSDI) VS Supplemental Security (SSI)

You can use the Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool to determine which benefits your qualify for. 

You may be able to qualify for both SSDI and SSI at the same time, which is commonly referred to as “concurrent benefits”. To receive both, you must be approved for SSDI, but receive low monthly payments through the program. SSI is income based, or need-based. All income from what is considered “countable sources” is reviewed to determine if you qualify. 

A low monthly SSDI benefit can be caused by factors such as:

  • If you have worked very little or none at all in the past 10 years.
  • You had very little work history at the time you became disabled. 
  • You became disabled at a young age, before you were able to build a significant work history. 
  • You earned low wages throughout the course of being employed.

How To Apply

You can apply for disability benefits online, over the phone or in-person. In order to apply you will need:

  • Your date, and place of birth, and Social Security number.
  • Birth Certificate or other proof of birth. 
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status. 
  • U.S. Military Discharge papers, if you served before 1968. 
  • W-2 forms or self-employment tax returns from the previous year.
  • Medical records, doctors reports, recent test results or anything that would qualify as medical evidence. 
  • The name, Social Security Number, date of birth and age of your current and any former spouse. Also know the dates and places of marriage, as well as the dates of divroce or death (if applicable). 
  • Names and dates of birth of your minor children.
  • Your bank or financial institutions routing and account number if you want the benefits deposited electronically. 
  • Information about your medical conditions such as: Name, address, phone number of someone who can be contacted who knows about your medical conditions and can help with your application. Name, addresses and phone numbers, patient ID numbers, dates of treatment for all doctors, hospitals and clinics. 
  • Names of medicines you are taking and who prescribed them. 
  • Names, dates of medical tests you’ve had and who ordered them. 
  • Information about your work such as: amount earned last year the current year. Employer(s) address, and phone number. 
  • A copy of your Social Security Statement.   
  • List of up to five jobs you’ve had in the past 15 years that were before you became unable to work. 
  • Beginning and ending dates of any active U.S. Military Service before 1968. 
  • Information about previous workers’ compensation. 

Apply Online:

You can apply for disability benefits by creating or logging into your my Social Security account. The process may take 1 to 2 hours to complete, but you can save your progress, and come back to complete it later if you wish. You can start a new application or return to a previously saved one by clicking here

Apply In-Person:

Visit your local Social Security office. (Call first to make an appointment.)

Apply By Telephone:

Call 1-800-772-1213 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, you can call us at TTY 1-800-325-0778.

Approval Process

After you application is received, Social Security will provide confirmation of your application either electronically or by mail. They will then review your application, and contact your by phone or mail if they need more information or documentation. They will also inform you if other family members are eligible to receive benefits on your record, or if you can on another person’s record, such as a spouse or parent. They will then process your application and mail their decision to you.  

Wait Time For A decision

The time it takes for a decision to be reached depends on: the nature of your disability, how quickly medical evidence can be acquired from your doctor, whether it is necessary for you to have to undergo further medical examination and whether Social Security has to review your application for quality purposes. Ultimately takes 3 to 6 months to find out if you qualify. 

If you are found eligible to receive disability benefits, there is a five month waiting period before you can begin receiving said benefits. You will be paid your first benefit for the sixth full month after the date they find your disability began. 

Disability Benefits Calculator

Your lifetime average earnings covered by Social Security, determines your monthly disability benefit. If for some reason you don’t already have an estimate,, you can get your Social Security Statement online by using your my Social Security account, or use Social Security’s Benefit Calculators to determine how much in benefits your would receive if you became disabled right now.

Family Benefits

Once you start receiving disability benefits, you may have certain members of your family who could also qualify for benefits on your record. These potential beneficiaries are:

  • Spouse
  • Divorced Spouse
  • Children
  • Disabled child
  • Adult Child Disabled Before Age 22

If any of your family members qualify and apply for benefits, you will be asked for their Social Security numbers, and birth certificates, as well as proof of marriage and dates of current and prior marriages, if applicable. 

There is a limit to the amount that Social Security will pay your family. Each family member may be eligible for a monthly benefit of up to 50% of your disability amount. It all depends on your benefit amount and the number of family members who qualify. Totals may vary, but the general amount is between 150 to 180 percent of your disability benefit. The benefits to your family members may be reduced proportionately if the sum of the benefit payable is greater than the family limit, though your benefit will not be affected. 

Having a divorced spouse who qualifies will not affect the amount of benefits you or your family may receive. 

What Happens If You Go Back To Work

Can you return to work while getting Social Security disability benefits? Yes, of course you can. Special rules exist to help get you back into the workforce, without doing any harm to your initial benefits. You can even do a trial work period for 9 months to test whether or not you can perform your work duties.  

If you receive disability benefits and your condition improves and you decide to return to work, you can report these changes to Social Security by calling 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) or contacting your local Social Security office.

Work Incentives

You can get help with understanding work incentives at your local Social Security Office by speaking to a Work Incentive Liaison. They will give you advice and information about their work incentive provisions, as well as employee support programs. For more in-depth information on everything to do with Work Incentives. Visit Social Security’s Redbook.  

Review Of Your Disability Status

Your case will be reviewed periodically to judge whether your condition has medically improved, or you can perform substantial gainful activity (SGA). Your work activity is not used as a reason to conduct a medical review if you are working and have received SSDI benefits for at least 24 months.

If you receive SSI benefits, your case may be reviewed if you work and are eligible for Medicaid, or if your work status has changed. You case will not be reviewed more than once a year.  

Situations Where Disability Benefits Are Subject To Tax

The majority of those who receive both SSDI and SSI benefits will not be taxed. It doesn’t matter if you file individually or joint with a spouse, the following income limits will determine that at least half of your benefits being taxed: Over $25,000 and less than $34,000 for an individual. Combine income over $32,000 if married or filing jointly.

Other Social Security Benefit Guides

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Social Security BenefitsUnderstanding your social security benefits better
Spousal BenefitsGuide on spousal social security benefits
Survivor BenefitsWhat happens when a family member dies
Social Security ApplicationHelp applying for social security
Social Security AccountTips & advice with your social security account
Social Security CardsGet a new card or replace a lost or stolen one
Disability SSI\SSDIRead the GuideThe current article you are reading
Government Benefits GuidesLists of most common government benefits, requirements to qualify and how to apply