What is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

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Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a federal program that helps replace lost income for people with disabilities who can no longer work. To qualify, the Social Security Administration (SSA) must determine you have a disability and you also must also have worked long enough while paying Social Security taxes.

Note: SSDI is sometimes called "DI" or "Title II" (Title II of the Social Security Act). Some people just call it "Social Security disability benefits," or "Social Security benefits," but that can cause confusion with other Social Security programs.

What is the difference between Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)?

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Social Security has two disability benefits programs with very similar names:

Some people qualify for both programs at the same time. If you get benefits from Social Security, but aren’t sure which ones you get, order a free Benefits Planning Query (BPQY) at your local Social Security office or by calling 1-800-772-1213 or 1-800-325-0778 (TTY).

Who can I call to ask questions about SSDI?

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If you have questions about SSDI and need to talk with somebody, call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 or 1-800-325-0778 (TTY) or visit your local Social Security office.

If you want to ask about how work might affect your SSDI benefits, try contacting:

Who is eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

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To qualify for SSDI, Social Security must decide that you have a disability. You also need to have worked a certain amount of time and have contributed enough in Social Security taxes to qualify.

The amount of time it takes Social Security to decide if you have a disability can vary widely from applicant to applicant. In some cases, it may only take a month or two. The average is around six months and in some cases it takes a year or longer.

Social Security uses a series of tests to decide if you are eligible. As a general rule, if you've accumulated enough work credits and your disabling condition is severe enough to keep you from engaging in any Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA), you'll qualify for SSDI benefits.

How is my SSDI benefit calculated?

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Your SSDI benefits amount is based on your average earnings from work over your lifetime. Small changes will be made to your benefits amount each year to account for changes in the cost of living.

Your SSDI benefits amount may be reduced if you’re getting Workers' Compensation payments or income from other sources, such as government pensions.

Is there any health coverage that comes with SSDI?

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Yes. If you’re on SSDI benefits, you will automatically be eligible for Medicare after you’ve been eligible to get SSDI cash benefits for 24 months. You will continue to be eligible for Medicare as long as you’re getting SSDI cash benefits, and for up to 93 months (seven years, nine months) after your SSDI Trial Work Period ends.

Learn more about Medicare in DB101's How Health Benefits Work article.

How do I apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

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You can apply for SSDI:

What sort of information will I have to give Social Security when I apply for SSDI?

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You may need to give all of the following when you apply for SSDI:
  • Names, addresses, and phone numbers of all doctors, hospitals, and clinics that have given you medical treatment. You will also need to give dates of treatment
  • Names of any medications you are taking
  • Copies of any medical records you have
  • Your Social Security Number and the Social Security Numbers for your spouse and any children you have who are minors
  • A certified copy of your birth certificate
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or legal residency, if you were born in another country
  • A certified copy of your military discharge papers (Form DD 214), if you were in the military
  • Your most recent W-2 Form, or if you’re self-employed, your most recent federal tax return
  • Information on any workers’ compensation you get
  • A summary of all jobs you have had during the past 15 years (name of jobs and dates)

What is Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA)?

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Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) is one of the measures that Social Security uses to figure out whether or not you have a disability and therefore qualify for Social Security benefits.

If your countable monthly income is greater than the SGA level ($1,220 per month in 2019, $2,040 if you’re blind), you will not be considered disabled.

Note: You may be able to reduce your countable monthly income if you get a wage subsidy or have Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs).

If you are self-employed, Social Security may not consider your income alone to figure out whether or not you’ve reached the SGA limit. Instead, they may use three different tests that examine a variety of factors (for example, hours worked, skills needed, management time, and responsibilities) to figure out whether or not you’ve reached SGA.

Will the money I have in the bank or my other resources affect my eligibility for SSDI?

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No. SSDI does not have any resource limit. You can have unlimited resources and still qualify for SSDI benefits.

How do I know if my disability qualifies me for SSDI?

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Your disabling condition must be on Social Security’s List of Impairments for you to qualify. If your disability is not on the list, Social Security has to decide that your condition is as severe as a condition that is on the list for you to qualify.

What is the Trial Work Period (TWP)?

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Social Security wants to encourage Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) beneficiaries to return to work if they can. That's why there are program rules and work incentives to make it easier for people to work. One of these is the Trial Work Period (TWP).

Social Security gives everyone on SSDI benefits a nine-month TWP to test the waters and see if they’re able to re-enter (or more fully enter) the workforce. During your TWP, you can work and earn any level of income while still keeping full SSDI benefits.

Your TWP is made up of nine Trial Work months within a five-year window. A Trial Work month is any month within your TWP during which your gross earnings (earnings before taxes are deducted) are greater than $880. If you earn more than $880 in a month, you’ve used up one Trial Work month. If you earn less than $880, you haven’t. Either way, you continue to get full SSDI benefits.

What is the Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE)?

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Once you’ve used up your Trial Work Period (TWP), a three-year Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE) begins.

During your EPE, you will continue to get monthly SSDI benefits as long as your countable monthly earnings don’t exceed the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level ($1,220 per month in 2019; $2,040 if you’re blind). Your SSDI benefits amount will be zero in any month that you earn above the SGA limit.

Once your countable monthly earnings reach the SGA limit, a three-month Grace Period begins. During that time, you will continue getting SSDI cash benefits regardless of your wages. After your Grace Period ends, however, your SSDI cash benefits will be stopped for any month your countable earnings are over SGA.

What is Expedited Reinstatement?

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Expedited Reinstatement allows former SSDI beneficiaries who have gone back to work and used up their Trial Work Period and Extended Period of Eligibility to get up to six months of temporary SSDI cash benefits if their income drops below the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level.

During those six months, Social Security will conduct a medical review to figure out if the beneficiary still meets Social Security's disability requirements. If they do, they’ll be placed back on benefits without having to reapply for SSDI. If they don't, their SSDI benefits will stop.

To be eligible for Expedited Reinstatement, you must request it within five years of when you stopped getting benefits.

Do I need to let Social Security know if I go back to work?

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Yes. For Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), you must tell Social Security right away if:
  • You start or stop work
  • You reported your work, but your duties, hours, or pay change; or
  • You start paying expenses for work because of your disability.

If you don’t, you risk getting an overpayment and you may have to pay back those benefits to Social Security.

To report changes, contact your local Social Security office and ask how and when you should report your earnings. You may be able to report:

Note: If you’re on Medicaid or any other public health care program, be sure to report changes in your income to your local County Department of Job and Family Services (CDJFS) office.

Keep Records

It is very important for you to keep track of your earned income, because Social Security will periodically ask to verify it. This means that you should keep all of your pay stubs and documentation of work incentives, such as receipts for your Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs) or Blind Work Expenses (BWEs), in one place. A good way to do this is to get a binder and add this documentation to your binder each month. You can also put any letters you get from Social Security in your binder, take it with you whenever you go to a Social Security office, and take notes every time you communicate with Social Security.

How often do I need to report my income to Social Security?

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If you go back to work or if your earned income changes for any other reason, contact a claims representative at your local Social Security office and ask how and when you should report your earnings for SSDI. You may be able to report in writing or online. If you don’t, you risk getting an overpayment and you may have to pay back those benefits to Social Security.

Note: If you get SSDI benefits and also get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, you must report your income to SSDI and SSI separately. For SSI, you may have to report your income and other changes in your situation each month. Learn more about SSI income reporting in DB101's SSI article.

If Social Security denies my application for SSDI benefits, can I appeal the decision?

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Yes. If your application is denied (which is not unusual), you can appeal the decision. More than half of all appealed denials are reversed.

The appeals process may take several months. If your application is denied for medical reasons and you want to appeal it, you need to submit an Appeal Request and Appeal Disability Report. The report will ask you for updated information about your medical condition and any treatment, tests, or doctor visits you've had since Social Security made their decision.

If your application is denied based on nonmedical reasons, you should contact your local Social Security office to request a review. You can also call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 or 1-800-325-0778 (TTY) to request a review.

If you would like help with your appeal, you can contact the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) at 1-800-431-2804. NOSSCR is an association of attorneys and paralegals who represent people who think they’ve been unfairly denied Social Security benefits.

What are Childhood Disability Benefits (CDB) benefits?

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Childhood Disability Benefits (CDB) benefits are similar to SSDI. Adults who have a disability that began before they turned 22 can receive CDB benefits based upon the taxes their parents paid into the Social Security system. Unlike SSDI, you do not need to have worked to qualify for a CDB benefit.