If you're self-employed—that is, you own your own businesses or do freelance work—you should be eligible for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits. While people who work for companies as employees pay taxes to the Social Security Administration (SSA) through their paychecks, when you're self-employed, you pay Social Security through self-employment taxes when you pay your income tax.
To be eligible for disability benefits as a self-employed person, both of the following must be true:
Read on to learn more about these basic qualifications and the income tests Social Security uses to determine your eligibility for disability benefits when you're self-employed.
Social Security measures the length of time you've worked using "work credits." When you have enough work credits, you qualify for Social Security benefits like:
The number of credits you need to earn to qualify for SSDI depends on how old you are when you become disabled. But anyone who earns 40 credits in 10 years has met the work credit requirement to receive full benefits.
How do you earn credits? It's based on how much money you've earned and paid Social Security taxes on. The dollar amount it takes to earn a work credit changes annually. In 2023, you earn one work credit for each $1,640 you earn (and pay Social Security taxes on)—up to four credits per year. It doesn't matter when during the year you made the money. For example, if you report a self-employment income of at least $6,560 for the year, you'll earn all four available work credits.
And to pass the recent work test, you must have earned a certain amount of your work credits in recent years—based on how old you are when you become disabled. For most self-employed people, this means you had to have paid self-employment taxes for five of the last ten years. (Learn more about Social Security's duration of work and recent work tests.)
For most workers to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, their self-employment income must fall below a threshold the SSA calls "substantial gainful activity," or "SGA." The idea is that if you can earn over a certain amount ($1,470/month in 2023), you aren't disabled.
When you're self-employed, Social Security will use a different method to determine if your work is substantial gainful activity (making you ineligible for disability benefits). For business owners, consultants, freelancers, and gig workers, Social Security uses the "three tests."
Test One: the significant services and substantial income test looks at how much you earn. If your average income is more than the SGA, you won't qualify for disability. But if it's less, Social Security will compare your income to your pre-disability earnings. If you're making close to the same amount, you likely won't qualify. But if it's not, the SSA will compare your current income to that of non-disabled members of your community who run businesses similar to yours. If you're earning significantly less, you should pass this test.
Test two: the comparability test gauges whether the work activity you do for your business is comparable to the work done by an unimpaired person who has the same kind of business in your community.
Test three: the worth of work test examines how much the work you do for your business is worth. Social Security will consider how much value your work brings to your business and what it would cost to pay someone else to do it. If the work you do is worth more than the SGA limit, you won't qualify for disability.
If your self-employment work passes all three of these tests, the SSA won't consider your work as SGA.
To be eligible for Social Security benefits, you have to pay the self-employment tax, which includes both Social Security and Medicare taxes. So if you're self-employed, you'll likely file a Schedule SE at tax time.
The self-employment tax rate is 15.3% (in 2023). Social Security gets 12.4% of this, and the remainder goes to Medicare. You can learn more about self-employment tax on the IRS website.
Some business owners aren't required to pay the self-employment tax. For instance, owners of "S corporations" don't pay the self-employment tax on company profits. So if you own an S corporation, you can't collect Social Security disability benefits unless you have also earned wages as an employee (of your own business or another) and pay Social Security taxes (FICA) on those wages.
Your disability amount is based on your reported earnings—from either self-employment or wages from a job—not on your work credits. Work credits simply allow you to qualify for benefits. They don't determine the amount of those benefits.
Social Security uses your "average indexed monthly earnings" (AIME) to determine your actual benefit amount. Your AIME is calculated using a highly complex formula that takes into account factors such as:
Learn more about how your SSDI benefits are calculated.
After you're approved for disability benefits, like other workers, you're allowed to try to go back to self-employment during a nine-month "trial work period" (TWP). You can also try to start your own business during your trial work period.
During your trial work period, you can earn more than the SGA without losing benefits. Once your TWP is complete, Social Security will again check to see if you're doing substantial gainful activity using the above tests and others. Learn more about trial work periods when you're self-employed.
Updated by March 24, 2023
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