Social Security Disability Benefits

Seniors who have a chronic or permanent medical condition may qualify to receive social security disability income (SSDI) payments from the federal government. To be covered by this program, you must meet work history and medical criteria.

Meeting the Work History Requirement

To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you must have accumulated enough work credits. A worker can earn up to four work credits per year. Before 1978, a worker had to earn a minimum amount in each quarter of the year to earn a credit, but now credits are awarded based on the amount earned over the entire year. Thus it is possible for someone who is well paid to earn all four available credits for a year even if they didn’t work all four quarters of the year.

The required number of credits is dependent on the applicant’s age and tops out at 40. Here’s a breakdown of credits based on the age of disability onset:

  • Age 60 or over: 40 work credits required.
  • Age 43-59: The number required varies by age. The worker must have earned one credit for each year after turning 21 and including the year before the work became disabled. For example, a worker who becomes disabled at age 50 requires 28 work credits to qualify.
  • Age 31-42: A minimum of 20 credits is required.
  • Age 24-30: The number required varies by age, but is lowered to take into account their short work history. For example a 27-year-old only needs 12 credits.
  • Age 23 and under: The worker must have accumulated 6 credits during the 3-year period before the disability occurred.

Meeting the Definition of Disability

The Social Security medical definition of disability requires that you are unable to perform a “substantial” amount of work due to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to last at least 12 months, or possibly result in death. Applicants need to provide proof of both disability and their income.

What Qualifies as Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA)

Social Security defines “substantial gainful activity,” or SGA, by how much you earn per month. For 2017, the amount is $1,170, or if you’re blind, $1,950. So if you’re working part time and not earning very much, you won’t automatically be declined for Social Security disability benefits. Income you earn from non-work sources, such as investment income, isn’t counted.

There are exceptions to the income cutoff. Claimants can argue that they only achieved their income because they were allowed to work under special conditions. Examples include:

  • Requiring help from other employees to perform work duties
  • Being permitted to work an unusual schedule or take extra rest breaks
  • Requiring special equipment or work especially suited to the person’s impairment
  • Having had a special opportunity to work due to a family relationship or special association with the employer

These and a few other circumstances can be used to make the case that the claimant’s income shouldn’t be counted as SGA.

At the other end of the spectrum, low income won’t automatically qualify you as unable to work. If the income is low because of the nature of the job rather than your ability to perform it, you may not qualify. Social Security can also consider extensive volunteer work, if it’s work that someone would normally be paid for, as proof of SGA.

So there are exceptions, but as a general guideline, people who work and earn more than the SGA threshold won’t be given benefits, unless they were working under special circumstances.

What qualifies as a disability?

Not every physical or mental impairment rises to the level of a disability. The Social Security Administration (SSA) maintains a massive “Listing of Impairments” that details disability criteria for specific conditions ranging from spinal injuries to depression to severe immune dysfunction. If your condition meets the criteria listed in it, you’ll be considered disabled.

Even if your condition doesn’t meet the criteria outlined in the Social Security’s impairment listing, you may still qualify as disabled. This process is officially called getting a “medical-vocational allowance.” To determine your eligibility for SSDI under this prong of the program, you’ll have to demonstrate that your condition prevents you from performing substantial work, or SGA.

In making the decision as to whether you are disabled, the SSA will start by looking at your last job and determining if they think you can still perform it. They will then consider if there is other work you could reasonably adjust to do. They look at your medical condition, age, education, and past work experience and consider transferable skills you may have. 

If you’re already receiving Social Security disability benefits when you reach full retirement age, your disability benefits will be converted to retirement benefits. The amount will remain the same.

Carlos Lopez is the director for Disabled Friends. He also handles the department of disability resources for MedicareFAQ, a learning resource center for all seniors and Medicare beneficiaries.