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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 is like an insurance policy. You pay for SSDI through FICA taxes on your earnings. If you've worked for a minimum period of time (generally 10 years), you're entitled to an income from SSDI if you become disabled.

The amount of your other income and/or assets don't matter. It also doesn't matter whether your condition is work related.

Benefit amount is based on your past earnings. It is payable as long as your disability continues, starting after a waiting period.

You must apply for SSDI within a 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 assistance that receiving SSDI may qualify you for, 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.

Once you receive SSDI:

  • The program provides incentives to encourages you to try to return to work.
  • You will likely be subjected to periodic checks to determine if you are still "disabled."
  • If you receive SSDI for 24 months, you qualify for Medicare.

Your experience dealing with SSDI may be different from what is described here. As much as Social Security tries to standardize the process, procedures vary at different offices. 

As a practical matter, it helps to think of the Social Security Disability process as having the following steps: 

  • 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.)

There are terms Social Security uses that would be helpful to know that you will find listed together in: Terms To Know When Applying For Or Receiving Social Security Disability Insurance.

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