Social Security disability has different requirements to qualify than the agency's retirement benefits. You may qualify for disability benefits even if you have nowhere near enough work credits to get retirement benefits from Social Security. However, the Social Security Administration's definition of disability is a strict one, which can make it difficult to get approved. Understanding how the program works can help you thread this bureaucratic maze as quickly as possible.
Social Security work credits
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The Social Security Administration uses "work credits" as its benchmark to determine who is eligible for many of its programs, including disability benefits. To qualify for a work credit, you must earn a certain amount of money -- in 2017, $1,300 of earnings equal one work credit. However, you can only get a maximum of four work credits per year no matter how much you earn.
The work credits system for retirement benefits is simple: you just need 40 credits, which for most people would be 10 years of earnings, to qualify. But the qualifying system for disability benefits is somewhat more complex. Unlike retirement benefits, you might need to get disability benefits while still young -- so the work credit requirement takes age into account when determining whether or not someone can get disability benefits.
Remember, you can earn up to four work credits per year and in 2017 it takes $5,200 in earnings to get you four work credits. Thus, assuming you make more than $5,200 per year, to qualify for Social Security disability at age 35 you'd need approximately five years' worth of earnings on your work record.
What counts as a disability?
Social Security defines a disability as a condition that's totally and permanently disabling. The agency uses three guidelines to determine whether or not someone is disabled. First, the person must not be able to do the work that he was doing before. Second, he must not be able to take up another kind of work because of the limitations of his condition. And third, the condition must have lasted or be expected to last for at least a year and/or it's expected to result in the person's death. Social Security provides a list of conditions that qualify as disabling under the agency's definition, but if your condition is not on this list you can still qualify for disability benefits by meeting the three guidelines.
How to apply for disability benefits
Before applying for benefits, take a look at the Social Security disability checklist to make sure that you have all the information and documents you'll need. You can apply online on the Social Security website, apply over the phone by calling 1-800-772-1213 (TTY users can call 1-800-325-0778), or apply at your nearest Social Security office.
Be aware that it takes months for a disability claim to be processed. The agency estimates that a typical wait is 3 to 5 months; however, it's not uncommon for the process to take even longer than that (case in point: when my mother applied for Social Security disability, it took her nearly a year to get through the approval process). For that reason, it's a good idea to apply immediately even if you don't have all the documents you'll need to complete your claim. The sooner you get the process started, the less time you'll have to wait before you get your hands on that money.
What to do if your application is denied
If the Social Security Administration turns down your application for disability benefits, you can ask them to reconsider their decision. How to do so depends upon why they turned you down.
If the agency rejected your application because your condition doesn't qualify as disabling, you can file an appeal on the Social Security website. Or, if you prefer to appeal in person, you can print out the necessary forms from the website (you can also call 1-800-772-1213 and ask them to send you the appeal request form, the "Disability Report -- Appeal" (SSA-3441) and an "Authorization to Disclose Information to the Social Security Administration" (SSA-827)), fill them out and send them to your local Social Security branch.
If you don't have enough work credits to qualify for disability benefits, you may be able to get benefits from the Supplemental Security Income program instead. This program provides monthly payments for low-income individuals who are 65 or older, blind, or disabled. To apply for SSI, visit your local Social Security branch (call for an appointment first), or call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY users can call 1-800-325-0778).
Finally, if you were denied benefits for some other reason, you'll need to request a review of your application. You can do so either in person at your local Social Security branch or by calling 1-800-772-1213 (TTY users can call 1-800-325-0778).
Social Security disability benefits aren't the only potential source of income if you're disabled. Many companies offer disability insurance (either short-term or long-term) to their employees, and in fact this is a requirement in some states; check with your HR representative to find out if your company has such a policy for you.
If you're proactive, you can also purchase a private disability insurance policy for yourself. These policies come in a number of different forms: some provide short-term coverage, while others may provide payments until you turn 65. Before buying such a policy, check the fine print to see what you'll need to do to qualify as disabled because some policies are even more limiting than the Social Security Administration in their definition of disability, while others are quite lenient.
Becoming disabled is a life-shaking event, and piling money problems on top of that only makes things even worse. If having a private disability insurance policy can take some of the burden off your shoulders while saving you the hassle of applying for Social Security benefits, it's probably well worth the price.
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