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Social Security Disability Basics

Learn more about the Social Security Disability program–who may qualify to receive benefits, how the process works, how much you’ll receive and when.

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) — 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 are designed to prevent fraud.

Who Qualifies for Social Security Disability Insurance Today?

Today, persons may qualify for SSD if:

  1. They have a 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 normal retirement age, which is between ages 66 and 67, depending on year of birth.
  4. They have sufficient work credits.

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

A letter from your doctor isn’t enough; it must be supported by medical findings. And, temporary disability doesn’t count unless it keeps you from performing SGA for twelve months or more.

What Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Actually Is…

  • It’s administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) with medical reviews 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?

Currently, the average monthly benefit for disabled workers is $1,199 (that’s $14,388 a year) per disabled worker and $340.00 average for eligible spouses and $369.00 average 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 after the unpaid five-month waiting period. However, if your disability date is more than seventeen months prior to application, benefits will begin twelve months before the month of your application. [If an attorney helped you prepare your application or appeal your denial, their SSA-approved fee will come out of that “back pay” rather than your paying the attorney directly.]

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. 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. If you also receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), your payment day will be the 3rd of the month regardless of when in the month you were born.

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

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 financial institution.
  2. DirectExpress®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 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 and prefer not to use a DirectExpress card. [Your benefits are protected, under federal law, from attachments or garnishments by creditors to satisfy any obligations you may owe, except  for child support, alimony obligations, or past-due federal income tax.]

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

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