Social Security Disability Insurance: A Complete Guide

By / October 24, 2016 / Social Security Disability & SSI Basic Facts / 14 Comments

This overview of the Social Security Disability program explains who may qualify to receive benefits, how the process works, how much you’ll receive and when.

SSDI Has Been Helping the Disabled for More than Sixty Years

The Social Security Administration (SSA) was established in 1935, to pay retired workers age 65 or older (if they paid into the system via modest payroll deductions) a continuing income. But it wasn’t until 1954, some two decades later, that the SSA initiated a disability insurance program — Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI or SSD) — to prevent a severe disability from reducing or wiping out a person’s retirement and survivor benefits.

In 1956, the Social Security Act was amended again to provide cash benefits to disabled workers aged 50 – 65 and disabled adult children who met the eligibility requirements. Over the next few years, Congress broadened the scope of the program, permitting the dependents of disabled workers to qualify for SSD benefits, too, and eventually disabled workers of any age could qualify. The strict eligibility requirements designed to prevent fraud.


Who Qualifies for Social Security Disability Insurance Today?

Today, persons may qualify for SSD if:

  1. They have a “complete” (not partial) physical or mental disability that prevents them from engaging in any “Substantial Gainful Activity” (SGA);
  2. Their condition is expected to last at least 12 months or result in death;
  3. They are under the age of 66. (At age 66, Social Security retirement and Medicare benefits usually take over)
  1. They have accumulated 20 Social Security work credits in the last 10 years prior to the onset of their disability. At least one additional credit is required for every year their age exceeds 42.

Normally, workers paying into the SSA system receive four work credits per full or partial year.

Exception: The work requirement is waived for SSD applicants who can prove they became disabled at or before age 22, since they may be allowed to collect benefits based on the work credits of one or both parents. The parent(s) would not lose any of their own benefits.

Medical evidence of disability
is a crucial part of the SSD process.

A letter from your doctor isn’t enough. And partial or temporary disability doesn’t count. As noted above, it must be a complete disability, expected to last 12 months or longer or result in death. And reliable medical evidence is required from impartial examiners.

To make sure your application doesn’t get denied, you can read Common Reasons Why SSDI Applications Are Denied and what you can do to prevent getting turned down.

What Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Actually Is

  • It’s administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) — with medical exams handled locally by state agencies to help determine eligibility.
  • It helps only those who have a disability — and meet the other eligibility requirements, such as having paid enough into the system via FICA deductions or self-employment taxes.
  • And it’s insurance. Like any other insurance program, premiums (those FICA deductions or SE taxes) must have been paid by applicants over the years before any benefits are paid, since that’s how the program is funded.

To make sure all these requirements are met by each applicant, the SSD eligibility evaluation process is strict, complex and time-consuming.

The Financial Facts of Social Security Disability Insurance

How much money will you receive?

During their 2016 calendar year, the Social Security Administration (SSA) paid eligible disabled workers an estimated $123 billion in Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits. Currently, the average monthly benefit is $1,166.46 (that’s $13,997 a year) per disabled worker…$322.25 for an eligible spouse…and $351.70 per eligible child.

Your amount may be more or less than the national average, since it’s based on your average lifetime earnings (to date) for work covered under Social Security; i.e., you paid into the system via payroll deductions or self-employment taxes. As soon as you’re approved for SSD benefits, the SSA will send you an Award Notice stating the effective date of your disability and the exact amount of your monthly benefit.

However, that figure is subject to change. It may be reduced if you receive payments from workers’ compensation, a public disability benefit, or a pension based on earnings that were not covered under Social Security.

Under the law, your payments cannot begin until you have been disabled for at least five full months (and your disability is expected to have a duration of at least 12 months, or result in death).

Usually, payments begin with your sixth month of disability, and you’ll receive “back pay” for the previous five months. [If an attorney helped you prepare your application or appeal your denial, their SSA-approved fee will come out of that “back pay” — not out of your own pocket.]

When will you start receiving your benefits?

That depends on when your state’s Disability Determination Services (DDS) department determines your disability actually began. For example…

If, based on information you or your doctor provided, the DDS decides your disability “officially” began on, say, January 15, then your first monthly disability benefit would be paid for the month of July. Why so much later?

Because, initially, there’s a five-month delay, during which time the benefits accumulate as “back pay.” Then benefits are paid in the month following the month for which they are due. So your July benefit would be paid in August…your August benefit would be paid in September…and so on.

Or, for example, if your disability began on, say, June 10, then your first disability benefit would be paid for the month of December, and you would receive it the following month—in January.

Note: If your family members are eligible for benefits based on your work, they would receive a separate Award Notice. If you are awarded benefits but you believe that the benefit amount is not correct (too low) you’ll need to contact the SSA in writing within 60 days to appeal the amount.

On what day of the month will you be paid?

That usually depends on the day of the month you were born on, if the payment is based on your Social Security work record. In 2016, the SSA is scheduled to pay SSD benefits on the second Wednesday of the month if your birth date is from the 1st to the 10th…on the third Wednesday if it’s from the 11th to the 20th…and on the fourth Wednesday if it’s from the 21st to the 31st.

But if you receive benefits as a spouse, the payment date will be determined by your spouse’s birth date. If the payment date falls on a Saturday, Sunday or national holiday, expect to be paid on the preceding weekday.

How will you receive your benefit payments?

For decades, the SSA mailed benefit checks to recipients once a month, at a gigantic cost for check printing, envelopes and postage. But countless benefit checks were stolen from mailboxes or in other ways before the intended recipients ever saw them, and there were additional expenses and delays for investigations and for issuing duplicate checks. But that changed in 2011.

Now, the SSA gives recipients a choice of 3 more secure options, and the funds are available the same day they’re deposited:

  1. Electronic payments: You can receive your monthly payments via direct deposit right into your checking or savings account at your bank, savings & loan, or credit union.
  2. Direct Express®  debit card. Each month, the SSA will deposit funds electronically into your Direct Express account (available on request) and you can use your card (it’s free) as you would any debit card, to pay for purchases or withdraw money from ATMs. (There may be ATM fees.)
  3. Electronic Transfer Account (ETA). This is a low-cost (to you) account you can set up at any participating, federally-insured bank, S&L or credit union. It was designed for recipients who don’t have, or don’t qualify for, a regular checking or savings account. [Your benefits are protected, under federal law, from attachments or garnishments by creditors to satisfy any obligations you may owe, except for child support or alimony obligations.]

When you’re approved for SSD benefits, you’ll need to tell the SSA which of these 3 options you prefer, since (with rare exceptions) they are no longer mailing out benefit checks.


Social Security Disability Insurance: A Complete Guide
5 (100%) 1 vote

  • Your Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits are based on your lifetime earnings, not where you live. If you have additional earnings Social Security will review your record for any earnings that my increase your month benefits amount. If an increase is due a new benefit amount and any pay increase would be retroactive the January following the year of your earnings. This is done every year automatically.
    You have a nine month trial work period (TWP) and during that time you will receive full SSDI benefits regardless of how high your earnings might be. Your TWP starts when you begin working. In 2017, Social Security will consider your work to be services for the TWP if your gross earnings are more than $840.00 a month, or if you work more than 80 hours in self-employment in a month. The TWP continues until you accumulate 9 TWP months within a 60 month period. After you complete your TWP, you begin your Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE), During the 26 month EPE you get benefits for all months your earnings are below the SGA level (as long as you continue to have a disability). Your benefits are suspended if your earnings are above the SGA level. If you are blind the SGA levels are higher. In 2017 a non blind person can earn $1,170.00 per month and a blind individual can earn $1,950.00 a month. If your earnings stay below this amount you will continue to receive your check, unless your disability improves.
    If your Social Security check is only $600.00 a month you may qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. To qualify for this program you must be disabled and have limited income and resources. If you live in a state that pays a SSI state supplement that might supplement your SSDI benefits also. You can inquire whether your state has a supplement or if you are eligible for SSI by calling Social Security at 1-800-772-1213.

  • Dear George,

    If you are receiving Social Security Disability (SSDI), the $110 a month in workers compensation (WC) benefits would affect your SSDI only if the WC and SSDI together exceed 80% of your Average Monthly Earnings (AME) as established by Social Security. You can appeal the overpayment amount saying that you were told that the WC and SSDI would not be 80% of your AME. In the appeal, request that SSA show you how your AME was calculated–it is not necessarily what you were earning when you became disabled–and how your benefit amount was recalculated. Resubmit the paperwork on the WC award with the appeal.

    If you have been receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the $110 would be countable income and would reduce your SSI each month. If you did not report the WC income when you applied for SSI (or later when it started if the WC started after the SS), you could be overpaid $110 a month ever since the WC started, but even that amount for twenty-two years would be $29,040.

    If one or both of the overpayments turns out to be correct, you can try requesting waiver of repayment but you would have to establish that the overpayment was not your fault (you reported the income). You can also request that only part of your benefits be withheld to collect the overpayment.


  • Dear Luvinit21921,

    It is not to your son’s disadvantage to have the lot rent omitted, but it is probably incorrect because it includes the utilities, which are shelter expenses and are used to determine total shelter costs and from that figure what your son’s share is. I recommend that you continue to have your son pay half of the lot rental in addition to half of the other shelter expenses so that if in the future the next representative correctly wants to include the lot rental, your son’s benefits won’t be reduced.


  • Dear William,

    It is possible to become insured for Social Security Disability by working while on SSI; however, the five-year period is a rolling period. So, if part of your credits were earned five years ago as the rolling period advances, those credits would drop off and not be counted. This means that if most of your credits were earned in the early years of the current five-year window, you might have to work more than a year at four credits a year to meet the currently insured requirement of twenty credits in five years. For example, if the current five-year period is April 2013-March 2017, by April 2018, the five-year period will be April 2014-March 2018 and credits earned in 2013 will no longer count.

    On the other hand, if most or all of your credits were earned in the last four years, four credits earned in one year would insure you. I suggest that when you have earned four credits, which in 2017 is $5,200, what you take proof of your earnings to Social Security and ask them to calculate whether or not you are currently insured.

    Also, note that half of what you earn above $85 a month will cause a reduction in your SSI monthly benefit. For example, if you earn $500 gross per month, your SSI will be reduced by $207.50. Be sure to report your previous month’s earnings by the tenth of the following month.


  • Dear JLW,

    If you were insured when you stopped work, you can file a Social Security Disability (SSD aka SSDI) application now and claim a date of disability going back to the day of the knee surgery. Retroactivity is limited to twelve months, so to avoid losing benefits for past month, I suggest that you start your application before the end of the month. Articles with tips for filing can be found under the “Apply SSD” tab on the navigation bar at the top of this webpage.


  • Dear William,

    Yes, that is possible. The SSI recipient needs to report the work and part of the work earnings will reduce the SSI benefit.


  • Dear Thea,

    You may be able to apply for and receive Social Security Disability (SSDI) benefits while living abroad if you are not in a restricted-delivery country and if you meet all the requirements as a non-citizen to receive benefits while abroad. One screening criteria for non-citizens is the country where you have citizenship. The law is quite detailed, but the major points are described in an online brochure at If you are eligible to receive benefits while out of the U.S., you can apply at a U.S. embassy.


  • You are welcome, Jeanie.

  • Dear Jeanie,

    For your children to received Childhood Disability Benefits (CDB), they have to prove that they have been continuously disabled since prior to age twenty-two. It sounds as if your older son performed substantial gainful activity (SGA). If he performed SGA for more than six months and in some cases more than three, his link to Childhood Disability Benefits would be broken because his link to dependency on you would be broken.

    It sounds as if your younger son is getting CDB from your earnings record now (not SSDI because you say he didn’t have enough work credits). If that is not the case, he might qualify for CDB given that his earnings have been low throughout his allowing him to prove disability continuous dependency and disability since prior to age twenty-two.


  • Dear Jeanie,

    Please clarify the “SSDI” benefit you refer to both your children receiving. Have both worked enough to be insured for Social Security? Second question, after your younger child got cut off, he or she ever work earning more than around $1,000 to $1,100 a month. If so, for how long? When I have this information, I can respond.


  • Dear Carrie,

    Your husband has been receiving childhood disability benefits (CDB) as a disabled dependent adult child and, apparently later, as a surviving disabled child. According to Social Security law, dependency on parents ends with marriage unless the dependent beneficiary marries someone who is also receiving CDB or Social Security Disability. Unless you are disabled and receiving one of these benefits, your husband is no longer eligible for CDB benefits. Depending on your family income and assets, he might be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) eligibility, which in most states is accompanied by Medicaid insurance. I suggest that he file an SSI application at his local SSA office.


  • Dear Tucan,

    Whether or not your sister is eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) depends on how much her husband makes and whether they have any minor children at home. Their countable assets also must be within the SSI limits. Many assets are excluded from counting. See a list of excluded resources in the article “When I Am Applying for SSI Disability, Which of My Assets Are Counted Against the SSI Resource Limit?” under the SSI tab at the top of this webpage.


  • Jeremy

    I’m currently receiving ssdi I was self-employed and earn 75k my last year of employment which was 2013 the company I worked for audited their books and have sent me my 1099 will this affect my benefits when I file my taxes?

    • Kay Derochie

      Dear Jeremy,

      I am understanding that the 1099 for 2013 represents additional pay that the former client is sending you for your 2013 work. By response is based on that understanding. When you get the 1099, take it and the letter notifying you of the audit to Social Security to go on record that the payment is for work performed before you became disabled. Also be sure to keep the original documents indefinitely in case the issue comes up some time in the future.


Read It To Me
Listen to the article with our text to speech feature
Ask the Adivsor
Click for the BBB Business Review of this Online Publications in Orlando FL

Send this to a friend