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Disability For Purposes Of Social Security Benefits


For Social Security purposes, "Disability" is defined in two parts. One part relates to your ability to work. The other to your medical condition. The condition must also be disabling for, or expected to be for a period of time.


  • Ability To Work:
    • You must be totally (not partially) disabled and unable to do any work  OR
    • If you are able to do some work, you must make less a minimum amount of money or put in less than a minimum number of hours if you are self employed. This is known as "Substantial Gainful Activity." The dollar amount varies from year to year. In 2016, it is an average of $1,130 per month or $1,820 for people who are statutorily blind. The test is different for people who are self employed.
  • Provable Medical Condition:
    • Your inability to work must be due to a physical and/or mental impairment
    • For which there is medical evidence
    • Which has lasted, or can be expected to last, for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, OR can be expected to result in death  
  • The legal definition is as follows: "The inability to perform substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, or combination of impairments, which has lasted or is expected to last at least twelve consecutive months, or end in death, taking into account the individual's age, education, and work history."  42 USC Section 423(d);  20 C.F.R. Sections 404.1505; 416.905

NOTE: Social Security is not bound by disability determinations of other agencies such as the VA or insurance companies. However, the closer their definition of disability is to the Social Security definition of disability, the more weight it is given.

Period Of Time

A fair way to read the regulation about duration is as follows, including the explanations in the parentheses which we have added:

The impairment must have lasted or be expected to last at a disabling level (that stops you from performing Substantial Gainful Activities) for at least 12 months or to result in death (within 12 months.)

The twelve month duration requirement applies to both:

  • The inability to perform Substantial Gainful Activity and
  • The underlying physical and/or mental impairment.

The impairment does not have to last for 12 months BEFORE applying for Social Security Disability. It is more a question of how long you have been impaired and how much longer the impairment is expected to last.

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