In the United States, Social Security provides various benefits to eligible disabled adults. The two primary programs for disabled adults are Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Both programs aim to provide financial assistance to people with disabilities who are unable to work due to their conditions.

  1. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI): SSDI is a program designed for individuals who have worked and paid Social Security taxes long enough to qualify for benefits. Eligibility is based on work credits or “quarters of coverage,” which are earned through taxable employment. 

    To qualify for SSDI benefits, an individual must be “medically disabled” according to the 5-step sequential process, and have the insurance coverage available at the time in which SSA finds you disabled. For most people, if you have a strong work history at the time you go out of work, you have 5 years in which to prove you are disabled. After that, your coverage will expire. Conversly, if you have been unemployed for 5 years or more, or had only scattered earnings throughout your lifetime, you may not have SSDI coverage.
  2. Supplemental Security Income (SSI): SSI is a need-based program designed for individuals with limited income and resources who are medically disabled. Unlike SSDI, SSI does not require quarters of coverage for eligibility.

    To qualify for SSI benefits, an individual must be “medically disabled” according to the 5-step sequential process, and have income and/or assets below a certain threshold. Currently, that limit is $2000 for an individual and $3,000 for a married couple.  

Five-Step Sequential Process for being found medically disabled:

Both SSDI and SSI use the same criteria for determining disability – this is also known as the Five-Step Sequential Process:

(1) Are you working? Work is defined as SGA or “substantial gainful activity.” If you are making above this amount per month, no matter your medical condition or how hard it is for you to work, you will be found “not disabled” and the inquiry stops here.  

(2) Is your condition “severe”? Severe is defined by SSA as a condition that significantly limits your physical or mental abilities, such that you are unable to perform basic work activities. This severe condition must have lasted, or be expected to last 12 months. SSDI/SSI is not for short term or acute disabilities, such as a car accident from which you will recover.

(3) Is your condition so severe that it meets a listing? Listings for SSA are a very high burden and most people do not meet a listing. They are governed by SSA’s Blue Book.  

(4) SSA will evaluate your past relevant work and determine if you could return to that work. Past relevant work is defined as work you performed in the last 15 years. SSA will determine the mental and physical strenuousness of that past work, and then determine if you currently have the capacity to do that job. If you do, then you are not disabled.

(5) SSA will evaluate whether there is any other work you can do in the national economy. If SSA determines that you cannot return to your past work, then they will determine if there is other work available in the national economy in significant enough numbers such that you could find employment in another job. If they find you can do other work, you are not disabled. It does not matter whether the job is available to you locally or whether someone would actually offer you the job. In this step, your age and education become very important. There are changes in how the law is applied at age 50, 55, and 60, such that the older you are and the more strenuous your past work was, the more likely it is that you will be found disabled.

The Appplication Process 

The application process for both programs typically involves providing detailed information about your medical condition, work history, and financial situation. Click here for a guide about How to Apply. SSA will also request medical records and other documentation to support the claim. In most cases, the applicant will need to undergo one or more consultative examinations with a medical professional contracted by the SSA to evaluate their condition(s) further.

Once approved, the amount of the monthly benefit varies depending on the program and the individual’s circumstances. SSDI benefits are calculated based on the person’s lifetime earnings, while SSI benefits are determined by the individual’s income and resources, as well as the Federal Benefit Rate (FBR), which is adjusted annually.

Other Disability Programs

Often overlooked, Disabled Widow’s or Widower’s Benefits (DWB) provides financial assistance to the disabled surviving spouse of a deceased worker who was covered by Social Security. These benefits aim to help widows or widowers who are unable to work due to their disabilities.

To qualify for Disabled Widow’s or Widower’s Benefits, an individual must meet the following criteria: 

  1. Be the surviving spouse of a worker who was covered by Social Security and earned enough work credits. 
  2. Be between 50 and 60 years old. 
  3. Have been married for at least 9 months prior to the worker’s death. 
  4. Have a disability that meets the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) definition of disability. The disability must have started before the worker’s death or within seven years after the worker’s death. 
  5. Not be entitled to an equal or higher Social Security benefit based on their own work record. 

The amount of the monthly DWB benefit is based on a percentage of the deceased worker’s benefit amount. 

It is essential to note that if the surviving spouse is also eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) based on their own work record, they may not receive both full benefits simultaneously. In this case, they will receive a combined benefit amount that is equal to the higher of the two benefits.

Needing help applying for SSI or SSDI benefits?