The federal government’s Social Security program pays disability benefits to individuals who cannot work due to a medical condition that is expected to last one year or result in death. Under federal law, the definition of disability is very stringent. The program does not cover individuals with partial or short-term disabilities. In sum, a person can get disability benefits if he or she is under full retirement age, has enough Social Security credits, and has a severe physical or mental medical impairment expected to prevent him or her from doing substantial work for one year or more, or have a condition that is expected to result in death.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) runs two federal programs to provide financial assistance for individuals with disabilities. These are the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.
The SSDI program provides benefits to individuals who cannot work because of long-term physical or mental impairments. Typically, to be eligible for SSDI benefits, the individual must pass two different earning tests. The first is a ‘recent work’ test based on a person’s age at the time he or she becomes disabled, and the second is a ‘duration of work’ test to ascertain whether he or she worked long enough under Social Security. For example, if you become disabled at the age of 30, you generally need two years of work, whereas if you become disabled at the age of 60, you generally need 9.5 working years.
The definition of disability under SSDI rules is usually linked to the inability to pursue substantial gainful activity, which essentially means holding a job. The SSA maintains a book of listings that contains many medical conditions defined in precise detail by certain symptoms. People who can show that they meet the criteria of a listing are automatically eligible to receive SSDI if they have met the requirements discussed above. However, it is also possible to seek benefits if you do not meet the criteria of a listing. The SSA will conduct a residual functional capacity (RFC) evaluation to determine whether you are able to hold any job in the national economy. If not, you will be eligible for SSDI.
The SSI program provides disability benefits as well. However, SSI applicants must pass the means test, which limits the amount of countable resources that an applicant may own. Put another way, a means test is designed to prevent the government from providing financial assistance to people who actually have the means to do without the benefits. The SSI applicant also has to meet the disability requirements for the SSDI program.
A person should apply for disability benefits as soon as he or she becomes disabled, since the process can be quite lengthy. An application for disability benefits can take from three to five months to process. An individual can apply for benefits online through the Social Security website or by filing a claim at your local Social Security office.
If your application for Social Security benefits is approved, you will get a letter informing you of the monthly benefit amount and the date from which it will be effective. The monthly amount is based on the person’s average lifetime earnings. If a person disagrees with a decision made on his or her claim, that person can appeal the decision. At this time, the individual seeking benefits can be represented by an attorney of his or her choice.