Can I Get Social Security Disability If I Haven't Worked in a Long Time?

You can sometimes get disability even if you haven't worked for a long time.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is a federal disability program available to workers who become disabled and can no longer work. To be eligible, you must have worked enough in recent years to have paid a significant amount into the Social Security system through FICA or self-employment taxes.

But what if you haven't worked in a while? You might still be eligible for SSDI benefits. Read on to learn how SSDI coverage works, including when your coverage might lapse and how you might get disability benefits if it has.

SSDI Works Like Insurance

People who've been out of work for several years might not qualify for SSDI benefits—even with extensive medical evidence showing they're severely disabled. That's by design.

SSDI was created under Title 2 of the Social Security Act as an "insurance program" against disability (42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433)—that's why it's called "Social Security disability insurance." The FICA and self-employment taxes you pay to the Social Security Administration (SSA) are the premiums for disability insurance coverage (and retirement benefits).

Like all insurance policies, SSDI coverage will lapse after a certain amount of time if you don't pay the premium—meaning if you stop paying Social Security taxes. The date when your federal disability insurance (SSDI) lapses is called your "date last insured" (DLI).

It might seem counterintuitive that you could be denied SSDI after working most of your life and paying thousands or even tens of thousands into the Social Security system. But SSDI isn't a savings account. It's a federal disability insurance program, and if you worked much in the last 10 years, you might find that you're no longer covered.

When Will SSDI Coverage Lapse?

SSDI coverage is based on the taxes you've paid into the system. You must pass both the "recent work" test and the "duration of work" test to be eligible for SSDI benefits.

To evaluate your eligibility, Social Security converts your earnings from work into work credits. You can earn up to four work credits per year (one per quarter). The amount changes every year, but in 2024, earning one work credit takes $1,730 in earned income.

Understanding the Recent Work Test

To pass the recent work test, you must have earned enough work credits in the years before you file your claim. How many work credits you need and how recently you must have earned them depends on how old you are when you become disabled. (42 U.S.C § 404.130.)

If you're 31 or older, you must meet Social Security's 20/40 requirement. That means you'll need to have earned 20 work credits in the 40 quarters (10 years) immediately before you became disabled. So, if you've worked at least 5 of the last 10 years, you should be covered by SSDI. If you haven't worked in a long time, say over ten years, you won't be able to get SSDI benefits on your own work record.

There are exceptions to this rule for workers who become disabled before age 31 and certain blind applicants. (See our article on the recent work credits required for Social Security disability to learn more.)

How to Pass Social Security's Duration of Work Test

Social Security's duration of work test measures how much you've worked (and paid taxes into the system) over your lifetime. The younger you are, the easier it is to pass this test.

For example, if you're 28 or younger, you need only have earned six work credits (which means you must have worked at least 1.5 years). But if you're 50, you'll need 28 work credits (which take at least 7 years to earn).

To estimate how many work credits you need to pass the duration of work test, subtract the year you turned 22 from the year your disability began. The answer is the approximate number of work credits you need to meet the duration requirement.

For example, if you turned 22 in 2004 and your disability starts in 2024, you'd need to have earned at least 20 work credits (because 2024 minus 2004 is 20). In this example, you'd need to have worked for at least five years (to get 20 work credits).

To learn more about the duration of work test, see the chart in our article on the Social Security work credits required for disability.

SSDI Might Cover a Disability That Started a Long Time Ago

Even if you haven't worked for a long time, you might still be eligible for SSDI benefits, depending on when your disability began. When you apply for disability benefits, Social Security asks you when your impairment began—that is, the date when you could no longer work. Social Security will then try to determine if your impairment qualifies as a disability.

The earliest date that Social Security determines you meet both the medical requirements and the non-medical requirements for disability is your "established onset date" (EOD). If your medical records show that your EOD was before your DLI (date last insured), your disability began before your federal disability insurance lapsed, and you can qualify for SSDI benefits.

Learn more about how Social Security determines your established onset date.

Getting Disability Through the SSI Program

If you haven't worked for a long time and you can't establish an onset date that predates your DLI, you won't be able to collect SSDI benefits. But you might qualify for disability benefits under Title 16 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1385), which covers the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

If you're disabled but haven't worked enough (or recently enough) to qualify for SSDI benefits, you might be able to collect SSI disability if you can demonstrate financial need. For SSI, "financial need " means having a low income—below the current federal benefit rate (FBR), which for 2024 is $943 per month for individuals and $1,415 for couples. Not all your earnings from work count toward the limit, but Social Security counts other kinds of income too. Learn more about what counts as income for SSI.

To meet SSI's financial requirements, you also can't own countable assets valued at more than $2,000. But countable assets don't include your primary residence or primary vehicle. For more information, see our article on SSI's asset limit.

If You Can't Work, Apply for Disability Benefits

If you can't work because of a disability but haven't worked much or recently, you might have doubts about qualifying for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration. Don't hesitate to apply for benefits if you can't work and you think that:

  • you can prove your disability onset date was before your SSDI coverage lapsed, or
  • you might meet the financial eligibility requirements for disability benefits through the SSI program.

Social Security will decide whether you qualify for SSDI, SSI, or both. But you can't qualify for benefits if you don't apply.

(Learn more about the Social Security disability application process.)

Updated October 30, 2023

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