Social Security

Who Qualifies for Disability?

Each person who is disabled is typically entitled to SSD benefits. However, not only does a person need to prove their disability, the person must first be eligible for the entitlement.


A person’s eligibility for entitlement to benefits depends on which program they are applying for: SSDI or SSI.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) eligibility is based on a person’s work history, and whether they have earned enough work credits to qualify for the insurance coverage. A person earns work credits by—essentially—paying a premium from their paycheck in the form of FICA taxes.

Work credits are the “building blocks” the Social Security Administration uses to find out whether a person has the minimum amount of covered work to qualify for benefits. For most people, the minimum number of credits required to qualify for SSDI is forty (40) work credits (10 years of work) over their lifetime, and ten (10) of those credits need to have been earned in the previous five (5) years. This number is adjusted/lowered slightly for people below the early retirement age (62). Assuming an individual earns enough money while working (typically full-time employment), they can earn up to one credit each quarter, or four credits per year.

Like any other insurance program, the disability insurance can expire if a person stops paying their premium (stops working). Roughly five (5) years after somebody stops working their insurance will expire. The date their insurance expires is referred to as their Date Last Insured (DLI). If somebody’s DLI is in the past, it means the person would need to prove they were disabled prior to their date last insured. This can be a challenge if their DLI is multiple years ago or they were not being treated at the time of their DLI. This issue is also one of the reasons it may be necessary to hire a Social Security Disability Attorney who can assist in proving disability prior to the DLI.

Because SSDI eligibility is based on a person’s work history, their current income, assets, and financial picture is not something the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers when determining a person’s eligibility to collect SSDI benefits. If the person has earned enough work credits and is still insured, they are eligible for the entitlement and simply need to prove they are disabled.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Unlike SSDI, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) eligibility is based on a person’s financial situation and need, not how much they have worked. SSI is popular for younger people who have not had the opportunity to earn the requisite credits necessary to be eligible for SSDI, for those individuals who were sickly most of their life, or for people who took other paths in life and have not spent much time in the work force. Whether a person has had one job, or ten, they may be eligible for SSI if they can prove their financial need.

Supplement Security Income is a needs-based program. This means that in order to be eligible for the entitlement, you must be of low income and low assets, resulting in a need for financial assistance from the federal government. SSA characterizes low income and low assets under the following criteria:

$2,000 liquid assets for an individual
$3,000 liquid assets for a couple

$794/month income for an individual (2021)
$1,191/month income for a couple (2021)

If the person has low income and low assets as defined above, they are eligible for the entitlement and simply need to prove they are disabled.


Even if a person is eligible for Social Security Disability benefits, they will still only be entitled to those benefits because of their total, permanent disability. The law defines disability as the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.

In order to be entitled to disability benefits, one must be permanently and total disabled—that is, they are not able to achieve Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) because of a severe impairment that hinders their ability to work. A person who is earning more than a certain monthly amount is ordinarily considered to be engaging in SGA. The amount of money considered SGA changes each year based on inflation and the cost of living in the current economy, and is determined by the federal government. Substantial Gainful Activity for the FY 2021 is $2,190 per month for individuals who are blind, and $1,310 per month for individuals who are not blind. If an individual’s earned income is greater than that year’s substantial gainful activity amount, they are not entitled to disability benefits and will automatically be denied.

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