Social Security Disability Insurance: A Brief Overview

By / February 18, 2018 / Social Security Disability 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 Brief Overview
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