Can you get disability from Social Security if you never worked a day in your life? It's a good question. The answer is yes—and no. You can get SSI disability without a work history, but you can't get SSDI benefits on your own work record.
Both programs benefit people who can't work because of long-term disabilities. But there are significant differences between SSI (Supplemental Security Income) and SSDI (Social Security disability insurance). Here's what you need to know about qualifying for disability benefits offered by each program.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) manages both SSDI and SSI, but here is how the programs differ.
SSDI. Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is a benefits program administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA). It's like an insurance program for individuals who've earned enough "work credits." Credits are earned by working and paying FICA taxes (or self-employment taxes).
If you've worked long enough at a job where you paid Social Security taxes, you'll have enough credits to be eligible for SSDI benefits. SSDI falls under Title 2 of the Social Security Act and is paid out of the Social Security trust fund.
SSI. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a low-income disability benefits program also administered by the SSA. (States used to run their own low-income disability programs until President Nixon worked to federalize them into the SSI program.) SSI helps disabled people with little income and few assets. It falls under Title 16 of the Social Security Act and is paid out of the general treasury, not the Social Security trust fund.
Read more about the difference between SSDI and SSI.
Yes, SSI is available to people who've never had a job or haven't worked lately. It's also open to:
SSI eligibility is limited to those with little income and few assets. So, even if you've never worked, it's still possible that you can get SSI.
To get SSI, you must have a disability that meets Social Security's medical requirements, and you can only have limited financial resources.
To qualify medically for SSI, your disability must:
To qualify for SSI if you're not working, you can't have many assets besides a house, a car, and household goods. You must have less than $2,000 in cash or other assets (or $3,000 if you're married). Here's a list of assets you can have and still qualify.
If you have income coming in that's not from work, the SSA will subtract it from your benefit amount. And if you have more than $914 per month in other income, your SSI payment will be eliminated. If you're married and your spouse has income, the SSA will count part of it towards the limit. Here's how the SSI income limit works.
You can start your application for SSI disability online, from wherever you are and at your convenience. If you prefer, you can call the SSA at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) between 8:00 am and 7:00 pm, Monday through Friday, to speak with a Social Security claims representative. Or make an appointment to apply at your local Social Security office.
Once your application is completed, it's processed and sent off to another agency that specializes in making medical determinations on SSI (and SSDI and Medicaid) claims. In most states, this agency is known as Disability Determination Services, or simply DDS.
At DDS, the file is assigned to a disability claims examiner, who'll process the medical portion of the claim. The examiner will begin sending out requests for medical records to the doctors, counselors, and hospitals you listed on your application. Since many medical providers (especially large hospitals) can be slow in processing the requests, the wait for records can last several months. Learn more about what happens at DDS.
If you've never worked, you can't get Social Security disability (SSDI) based on your own work history. To be insured for SSDI, you need to have enough work credits.
But keep in mind that it doesn't take a lifetime of work to qualify for SSDI on your own record. You can get SSDI disability benefits even if you never worked full-time. To earn enough work credits to qualify (about 20-40), you must have worked at least a small amount each year for five to ten years, depending on your age.
How much you must have worked depends on the year, but in 2023, every $1,640 you earn gives you one work credit, and you can get up to four work credits per year. To qualify, you must also have worked at least 5 of the last 10 years (or received 20 work credits over the last 10 years).
And you may have other options as well, if you have family members who have worked and paid Social Security taxes.
You can't get SSDI benefits on your own earnings record if you've never worked, but in limited situations, you can qualify for benefits based on a family member's record. For example, if you have a spouse who is eligible for Social Security benefits, you might be eligible for Social Security spousal benefits. To qualify for spousal benefits, you have to:
To learn more, read our article on Social Security spousal benefits.
Or, you might be eligible for Social Security survivors benefits after an ex-spouse dies. For example, if you've never worked, you can get SSDI disability benefits if:
For more information, see our article on survivors benefits for divorced spouses
Children can also collect SSDI disability benefits based on their parent's earnings. To qualify, a child must be:
To learn more, read our article about disability benefits based on your parent's Social Security record.
When you file for Social Security disability, the SSA will determine if your application is for SSI alone or both SSI and SSDI benefits. Filing for both SSDI and SSI is known as a concurrent disability claim.
Concurrent claims are for individuals who have coverage for SSDI benefits because of their work history but whose monthly benefit amount might be particularly low because their past wages have been low or they didn't work many years. Although you can get SSI benefits if you've never worked, you can't get concurrent benefits.
Whether you'll be approved for a disability comes down to what's in your medical records. For this reason, it's particularly important that you keep going to a doctor. That way, when your SSI claim is reviewed, you can present a long medical history and very recent medical records.
In general, the DDS claims examiner should have access to medical records from the last 60 days—to determine that you're still disabled. Learn more about the medical records required for disability benefits.
Likewise, it's extremely helpful to have a supportive doctor because your doctor's notes can have a significant impact on whether or not you get SSI benefits. Your medical records should indicate what you're currently physically and/or mentally capable of doing. (For instance, you can lift 10 pounds frequently and lift 20 pounds only occasionally). What you're capable of doing is called your "residual functional capacity" (RFC).
Without a doubt, the SSI disability process is a fairly difficult one, except in the most clear-cut cases. Most SSI applications are initially denied (and the denial rate is higher for SSI claims than for SSDI claims). To get SSI, you'll probably need to appeal the initial decision and go to a hearing.
If the SSA denied your SSI claim, you should probably consider finding a lawyer to represent you at the hearing. The lawyer will organize your medical records and get the evidence you need to prove that your medical impairments are disabling. (Learn more about hiring an SSI lawyer.)
Updated June 21, 2023