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SSDI 101: An Overview (Social Security Disability Insurance)

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Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a Federal program that pays a monthly income when you can't work or can only do a limited amount of work because of a physical or mental condition or a combination of the two.  SSDI refers to not being able to work as "disabled."

SSDI is like an insurance policy. You pay for SSDI through payments made to Social Security while working through FICA taxes on your earnings. If you've worked for a minimum period of time (generally 10 years), you are entitled to an income from SSDI if you become unable to work. 

In order to qualify, you must:

  • Be an eligible person (which includes family members of a worker)
  • Have a physical and/or mental condition which qualifies you as "disabled" as defined by the law.
  • The amount of your other income and/or assets don't matter. It also doesn't matter whether your condition is work related.

Social Security determines whether you are an eligible person. State agencies known as DDS agencies determine whether your physical and/or mental condition qualifies as a "disability" within the meaning of the law. It is advisable to apply for SSDI in person, to try to make friend of the person or people with whom you interact, and to follow-up on the process.

If your application ("claim" in Social Security language) is denied, it is advisable to appeal. Success rates on appeal are high. 

Benefit amount is based on your past earnings. It is payable as long as your disability continues.

Benefit payments do not start until the end of a five month waiting period. If you don't apply for benefits as soon as you stop working, SSDI will give you a lump sum payment for the period that starts the date you stop working (less the five month waiting period) to a maximum of 12 months.

If you receive SSDI benefits for twenty-four (24) months, you automatically qualify for Medicare - no matter what your age.

While receiving SSDI benefits, you may be subjected to what is referred to a Continuing Disability Review.

  • To maximize chances of a favorable result from the review, it is advisable to follow the prescribed medical protocol and keep track of how your condition affects your life. It is also advisable to get your doctor(s) on board, and to have noted in your medical record how your ongoing mental and/or physical situation impacts your life.
  • During the review you may be requested to take a Consultative Examination. If so, you have the right to have the exam done by your own doctor. You also have a say about when and where to meet with an investigator.

There are incentives built into SSDI to encourage a return to work, including a nine month trial work period and easy re-entry to SSDI if the return to work is not successful.

There are special rules for people who are legally blind.

You must apply for SSDI within a specified period of time after becoming disabled. If your disability was the cause for stopping work, or if you stopped work within the past year, you don't have to worry about a filing deadline. Otherwise, a concept known as "Date Last Insured" comes into play.

Before you apply, you should be aware that almost two thirds of applications for SSDI are turned down the first time. If you want a real chance at succeeding in qualifying for SSDI, it is advisable to understand how Social Security defines "disability," the process for approval of a claim, and time-tested guidelines. Following the guidelines empowers you, speeds the process, and improves your chances of receiving SSDI.

Proving that you are entitled to receive disability payments may seem like a lot of work (there is a reason applying for SSDI has been called "an exercise in patience"). However, it's not that difficult if you start with an overview. An overview helps clarify what to expect at each step and how to maximize the results of your efforts. Then take one step at a time.

When you think of the money you may receive, as well as the possibility of receiving Medicare, the amount of effort is worth it. If the process begins to seem like too much, ask a friend or family member to help, or consider hiring a professional.

Our information provides details about SSDI, starting with thinking about applying while still working, through the application and determination process, to returning to work - including practical information and tips. Your experience dealing with SSDI may be different from what we describe. As much as Social Security tries to standardize the process, procedures vary at different offices. 

  • Step 1: Prepare before filing a claim. 
  • Step 2: File your claim in person.
  • Step 3: Stay on top of the process for determining whether you are eligible for benefits. 
  • Step 4: Act appropriately whether you receive a notice of:
    • Approval of your claim (including learning about Continuing Disability Reviews, Medicare, and the possibility of returning to work)
    • Disapproval of your claim (including how to appeal.)

Our discussion is divided as fojllows:

If you desire to see all the subjects we cover in one place, please see our SSDI Table Of Contents.  


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