Learn About Social Security Disability Benefits

According to a study conducted by the Social Security Administration (SSA), a worker who is only 20 years of age has a 25 percent chance of becoming disabled prior to reaching the age he or she can fully retire.

The federal government pays disability benefits through the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program of the SSA. Disabled Americans can also receive benefits through the Social Security Income (SSI) program. Once you receive Social Security disability benefits through SSDI for an uninterrupted period of two years, you automatically become enrolled in Medicare coverage.

Once you start receiving Social Security disability benefits, you are eligible for work incentives allowing you to work while still receiving those benefits. Also available for program participants is assistance with training, rehabilitation and education needed to work. Collectively, this program is called Ticket to Work. Other assistance you may take advantage of while receiving Social Security disability benefits involve prescription drug plan savings, Medicare and retirement benefits. More information about Social Security disability benefits is covered below.

Who qualifies for Social Security disability benefits?

Based on federal definitions, Social Security benefits are available to people unable to work due to a medical condition for a period of at least one year. Applicants with a short-term disability or partial disability are not eligible for Social Security disability benefits. In some cases, family members of SSDI participants are also eligible for benefits under the program.

There are two earnings tests to determine whether or not you qualify for disability benefits. The first is a test of your recent work according to the age you were when you became disabled. The second is a test based on how long you worked and how much you earned toward Social Security benefits. Age is also a factor in these determinations, with 24 and 31 years of age being the two eligibility benchmarks. Unlike with certain other social and medical government programs, you do not have to be a senior to qualify for disability.

The younger you are when you became disabled, the fewer years of work you need to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. If you became disabled before you were 28 years of age, you only need to have worked about one year and six months to be eligible, whereas if you are 60 years of age, you must have worked nine years and six months in order to be eligible for benefits. Other factors may also influence your SSDI eligibility.

How do I apply for Social Security disability benefits?

The time to apply for Social Security disability is immediately after you become disabled. It can take between three and five months to process your application, so the earlier you start, the better. You can apply for Social Security disability benefits in a number of ways. You can apply through the official federal government Social Security website or by phone.

An attorney or other qualified individual may represent you in dealing with the Social Security Administration (SSA), if you wish. The information you will need to provide with your Social Security disability benefits application includes the following:

  • Social Security Number (SSN).
  • Birth certificate or baptism certificate.
  • Contact info for the doctors, clinics, hospitals and caseworkers who treated you, including the dates they saw you.
  • Names of all your medications and respective dosages.
  • Medical records from all doctors, clinics, therapists, caseworkers and hospitals who saw you.
  • Test and lab results.
  • Employment summary, including where you worked and what type of work you did.
  • A copy of your latest W-2 form or, for self-employed individuals, your previous year’s federal tax returns.

There are also some forms you will need to fill out in addition to your Social Security disability benefits application. One asks about your medical condition and its impact on your work. Another gives your permission to medical professionals to send the SSA any info they have on your medical status.

In some cases, your family members may also qualify for certain health benefits due to your disability. If your spouse is at least 62 years of age or caring for one of your children who is disabled or younger than 16 years of age, he or she is eligible for benefits. In addition, any of your unmarried children younger than 18 (or 19 if still attending school) are eligible for benefits. This applies to adopted children, and in certain situations will also apply to step-children and grandchildren.

If your unmarried child is 18 years of age or older but has a disability that began before he or she reached 22 years of age and qualifies under the definition of an adult disability, he or she is also eligible for benefits under your SSDI coverage. There are also certain circumstances in which your divorced spouse may be eligible for benefits if your earnings qualify. Such circumstances involve whether you two were married for 10 years or more and whether he or she remains currently unmarried and is at least 62 years of age.

What can affect Social Security disability benefits?

Payments under certain other government programs could reduce how much you receive in Social Security disability benefits. You must notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) if you have received funds from any of the following programs:

  • Workers’ compensation
  • Windfall elimination
  • Government pension

You can lose Social Security disability benefits altogether if you have an outstanding warrant for your arrest for flight-escape, escape from custody or flight to avoid confinement or prosecution. If you are convicted of a crime, your benefits will be suspended while you are in confinement, though any members of your family receiving benefits under SSDI will still receive those benefits.

You will also likely lose access to your benefits while you are confined at public expense by court order after being found not guilty due to insanity or similar reason or incompetent for standing trial. If you are on probation or parole and violate any conditions of this arrangement, you will also be unable to receive Social Security disability benefits. If you start to work again, even just part time, you must inform the Social Security Administration (SSA) immediately.

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