Choosing SSDI or SSI for Your Disability

The federal government's Social Security Administration administers two large programs that provide cash assistance to people with disabilities: the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

It's possible to be eligible for benefits under one or the other, or even both of these programs. However, the eligibility requirements for SSI and SSDI are very different.

Therefore, if you're disabled (by severe chronic headaches or by anything else), it will help you to understand the basics of each program, and what's needed to apply. Here's a primer on SSI vs. SSDI to help you decide which one may be right for you.

SSI Check from United States Treasury
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Eligibility Requirements for SSI or SSDI Programs

When discussing eligibility for these two federal disability programs, you should understand their funding mechanisms, since their funding affects whether or not you can receive benefits.

SSDI (like Social Security retirement benefits) is funded through payroll taxes. In order to be eligible for SSDI, you need to have been employed and have paid those payroll taxes for enough years to qualify. This depends on your age, but generally, you need to have worked and paid taxes for at least 10 years (younger people may be able to qualify with a shorter work history).

You can earn up to four credits a year while working. To qualify for SSDI, you must have accrued 40 credits, 20 of which were earned in the 10 years ending with the year you became disabled. Currently, you earn four credits per year that you make at least $5,640. You also need to be younger than full retirement age (currently age 66, but rising to age 67 by 2027). Once you reach full retirement age, your disability payments will automatically convert to regular retirement benefit payments.

If you qualify for SSDI, you'll receive monthly benefits that are based on how much money you've earned. This is similar to how the Social Security retirement program operates.

SSI, meanwhile, is strictly what's called need-based: it's based on your need for the benefits, as opposed to how long you've worked and how much you've paid into the system. SSI is funded through general tax revenues, not through payroll taxes, and someone who's disabled can qualify for the program even if they've never worked.

To get SSI, you must have both limited income and extremely limited resources (no more than $2,000 worth of assets, not including the home you're living in and a car). The monthly payment from SSI is based on your financial need (not on your earnings history). If you have any other income, your SSI payment will be reduced.

What Qualifies as Disabled

Qualifying as "disabled" under these programs can be the most difficult part of the application process. It's common to have your application rejected twice before it is finally approved.

 According to the Social Security Administration, your disability must pass three tests to be deemed eligible for SSDI:

  • Your disability must prevent you from doing the work you did before.
  • You must be unable to adjust to other work due to your medical condition.
  • Your disability must have lasted or be expected to last at least one year or to result in your death.

The Social Security Administration will make a determination on your eligibility based on your application for benefits. The agency maintains a list of conditions that are considered disabling, and your medical records will need to include evidence that you have one of these conditions or another condition that's equally as disabling.

SSDI is considered a long-term disability program—eligibility for benefits doesn't even start until you've been disabled for five months or longer. If you're currently working and earning more than around $1,100 per month, you won't be considered disabled.

Meanwhile, you can qualify for expedited SSI payments, which will start quickly, if you have a severe disability, such as total blindness or amputation of a leg at the hip.

Deciding Which Program Is Right for You

The Social Security Administration can answer basic questions about its disability programs on its toll-free phone line at (800) 772-1213. You also can consider visiting a local Social Security office, where representatives can help you with eligibility questions.

Because the process of applying for federal disability programs is complicated and requires significant input from medical professionals, many people recommend hiring an attorney to determine how to proceed and to handle the actual disability application. If you do decide to sign on with an attorney, make sure to find one with at least several years' worth of experience in handling Social Security disability cases.

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