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An Overview and Comparison of Social Security’s Disability Programs

by | Sep 18, 2023 | Firm News

While most are familiar with the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) disability program, it is helpful to understand the different types of SSA disability programs and the key differences between these programs.

Often referred to using their similar abbreviations – SSDI and SSI – these programs have the same medical requirements.  That is, if an individual’s condition met the definition of disability under one of these programs, he or she would meet the definition of disability under the other programs.  These programs differ in their non-medical eligibility requirements, such as work history or financial need, and how payments are calculated.

Social Security Disability Insurance

The Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) program was designed for disabled workers and functions like an insurance program.  Individuals work and “pay into” Social Security for a certain amount of time.  The amount of time an individual must work and pay into this program varies by the age of the applicant, whether their past work was part- or full-time, and how much they earned while working.  When an individual becomes disabled and can no longer work, they have a window of time – their “insured status” – to apply and be found disabled.  The “date last insured” refers to the end date of this “insured status.”  It follows that an individual who waits too long to apply for the traditional SSDI program may find themselves uninsured and no longer a candidate for the SSDI.  However, as a rule of thumb, an individual who works about half of the ten years preceding their alleged disability date will have insured status for a period of about five years.  Younger individuals have similar requirements but need not work as many of the preceding years.

If approved, the individual receives a monthly benefit commensurate with the individual’s prior income level.  Getting approved for this program is much like receiving early Social Security retirement but without a penalty.  Backpay, known as “past-due benefits,” is payable up to one year prior to the date of application.

Supplemental Security Income

While SSDI requires an applicant to have a certain amount of work leading up to their alleged disability date, Supplemental Security Income (“SSI)” has no such requirement and is a need-based program.  Instead, to be eligible for the SSI program, one must meet SSI’s financial requirements.  SSI’s financial requirements are limited – SSA considers any income, including that from pensions, gifts, and assets.  While there are exceptions to the countable assets, for an individual, the SSI asset limit is $2,000.00; for a couple, the SSI asset limit is $3,000.00.

If approved for SSI, the individual receives a monthly rate set by federal statute, although that rate may be lowered based on the individual’s living situation, i.e., living with family.  Past-due benefits are only payable from the date of application.

Disabled Adult Child Benefits

The program, often referred to as the program for “adults with disabilities since childhood,” is part of the SSDI program but has elements from both the SSDI and SSI programs.  The young adult must be found disabled prior to the age of twenty-two.  The young adult does not need to be under the age of twenty-two when they apply, but SSA must find them disabled as of any date prior to the individual’s twenty-second birthday.

Like SSI, the adult “disabled child” does not need work history to qualify for this program.  To qualify for this program, the young adult need not meet SSI’s financial requirements (although the adult child might also qualify for SSI based on financial need).  Instead, SSA uses the young adult’s parents’ earnings records.  However, the young adult is not able to begin collecting these unique benefits until and unless either parent is receiving SSDI, SSA’s retirement benefits, or is deceased.  It can take years for the individual to begin collecting their adult child benefits, but the individual’s eligibility for this program requires SSA to have found them disabled prior to the age of twenty-two.

There are other variants and features of these programs, but understanding the key distinctions between SSA’s largest disability programs is helpful when working with someone who is interested in applying for or is already receiving disability benefits.  The application process is lengthy and often requires appeals and a hearing.  Applicants will benefit from consulting with an attorney who has experience with the SSA’s disability process.

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