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

There are ways to get disability even if you haven't worked for a long time.

Updated By , Attorney

Social Security disability (SSDI) is a federal disability program available to those who have worked enough, in recent years, to have paid a significant amount into the Social Security system through FICA taxes deducted from their paychecks.

SSDI Works Like Insurance

People who have been out of work for several years may not qualify for SSDI, even if they provide extensive medical evidence indicating they are severely impaired. This is because SSDI, created under Title 2 of the Social Security Act, is a disability "insurance program," hence its full name, Social Security disability insurance (SSDI). FICA taxes are the premiums that all working citizens in the U.S. pay (whether they want to or not) for SSDI coverage (and Social Security 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 FICA taxes into the Social Security system. The date when your federal disability insurance (SSDI) lapses is called the DLI (date last insured).

It may seem counterintuitive that someone who has worked most of his or her adult life could be denied SSDI after paying thousands or even tens of thousands into the Social Security system. However, SSDI is not a savings account, but a federal disability insurance program, and if you haven ''t paid FICA taxes in the last 10 years you may find that you are no longer covered.

When Will SSDI Coverage Lapse?

You must meet the "recent work" test and the "duration of work" test in order to qualify for SSDI. Here's the recent work test: Typically, if you are 31 or older, you must have worked at least 5 of the last 10 years to keep up your SSDI coverage. Put another way, you will need to have earned 20 credits (one quarter of work equals one credit) in the 10 years immediately before you became disabled. There is an exception to this rule for certain blind applicants.

For information on the duration of work test, see our article on work credits required for Social Security disability.

If Your Disability Started a Long Time Ago

Even if you haven't worked for a long time, you might still be eligible for SSDI benefits if your medical records show that your established onset date (EOD) of your disability precedes your DLI (date last insured). In other words, if you can prove that you became disabled before your federal disability insurance lapsed, you could still file for SSDI. For more information on how this work, see our article on DLI, onset dates, and protective filing dates.

SSI Program

If you haven't worked for a long time and are unable to establish a EOD that predates your DLI, you won't be able to collect SSDI, but you might be able to collect disability benefits under Title 16 of the Social Security Act. Title 16 covers the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. Those who are disabled but haven't worked enough to qualify for SSDI can collect this SSI disability if they can demonstrate financial need.

For SSI, "financial need " means having low income and owning countable assets valued at no more than $2,000. Countable assets do not include one's primary residence and one's primary automobile. For more information, see our section on SSI eligibility requirements.

If in Doubt, Apply for Benefits

If you think your disability onset date (EOD) can be proven to be far back enough, or that you might be eligible for disability benefits through the SSI program, don't hesitate to file for disability benefits with the Social Security Administration (SSA). The SSA will decide whether you qualify for SSDI, SSI, or both.

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