How Does Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Work?

Here's a basic introduction to how Social Security disability works and what it takes to qualify for SSDI benefits.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated 9/19/2022

Social Security disability insurance, or SSDI, is a Social Security program that pays monthly benefits to you if you become disabled (before you reach retirement age) and can't work. SSDI is also known as "workers' disability."

This article will provide an overview of what SSDI is, how it works, and what it takes to qualify for this important Social Security benefit for disabled workers.

What Is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

If you've worked for several years and paid Social Security taxes (FICA) or self-employment taxes (SECA), and you become disabled, you might qualify for disability insurance benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA). Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is a payroll-tax-funded insurance program that provides income to workers who become disabled and can no longer work.

SSDI benefits are only available to workers Social Security considers totally disabled. SSDI doesn't give benefits to workers who are partially disabled, nor those with short-term disabilities. Social Security assumes that people have other financial resources to help get them through periods of short-term disability (like family, workers' compensation, private insurance, or savings).

What SSDI Benefits Can You Get?

SSDI is a cash benefit paid to eligible disabled workers and their families. If you're eligible for SSDI benefits, how much you get will be based on your past earnings. Your SSDI monthly benefit amount can range from $100 to $3,822 (in 2024). Most SSDI recipients receive between $800 and $1,800 per month, with the average individual disability benefit at $1,537 per month.

Although SSDI isn't an income-based program, the amount of your disability benefit can be reduced if you're also collecting workers' compensation or temporary state disability. But receiving private disability insurance payments, veterans benefits, or SSI (Supplemental Security Income) won't reduce your SSDI benefit amount.

If you qualify for SSDI, in addition to receiving monthly cash benefits, you can get healthcare benefits through Medicare (after two years). SSDI benefits might also be available for your spouse and other dependents. Learn more about getting SSDI benefits for your family.

Eligibility for Social Security Disability

To qualify for the SSDI program, you must have worked a certain number of years in jobs where you paid Social Security taxes and you must be disabled. Specifically, to qualify for SSDI benefits, you need to have earned a certain number of work credits and have a medical condition that now keeps you from working.

How Many Social Security Work Credits Do You Need?

In 2024, you earn one work credit for every $1,730 you earn each year. And only earnings you paid Social Security taxes on count toward the total. You can earn up to four work credits per year. How many work credits you need to qualify for SSDI benefits depends on how old you were when you became disabled.

Let's say you were 50 years old when you become disabled. In that case, you'd need 28 work credits, or to have worked for seven years to qualify for SSDI benefits. (And you'd have to have worked at least five of those years within the last 10 years). Learn more about the legal and financial requirements for SSDI.

If you haven't worked long enough when you become disabled, and have low income and assets, you can apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) instead.

Medical Eligibility for SSDI Benefits

Once Social Security has determined that you have enough work credits, the agency will then check to see if you qualify medically for disability. To qualify for SSDI benefits, you also must have a medical condition that meets Social Security's definition of disability.

To qualify medically for SSDI benefits, your disability must be:

  • severe (your condition must significantly interfere with basic work-related activities like standing, walking, lifting, or remembering)
  • long-term (your condition has lasted or is expected to last at least one year or until death), and
  • total (you aren't able to perform "substantial gainful activity" (SGA) for at least one year).

You might be able to get SSDI even if you're still working, but not if you're earning more than the SGA limit ($1,550 per month in 2024 for disabled applicants, $2,590 for blind applicants). If Social Security finds that you're performing "SGA," you won't be considered disabled enough to qualify for SSDI benefits.

How Social Security Decides If You Have a Qualifying Disability

The SSA defines a disability differently than do other government programs or private insurance programs. There are only two ways to meet Social Security's definition of disabled:

  • meet the requirements of an official medical listing, or
  • prove that your disability prevents you from doing any kind of full-time work.

Meeting a Medical Listing

The Social Security Blue Book (formally titled "Disability Evaluation Under Social Security") is a listing of impairments that the SSA considers severe enough to keep you from working. Each medical listing lays out the medical criteria you must meet to automatically qualify for disability benefits.

Social Security will first check your medical records to see if your condition meets the requirements of a listing or "equals a listing." If it does, the SSA will consider you disabled and you'll qualify for benefits. If not, you might still qualify for SSDI benefits.

Getting Approved Without Meeting a Listing

If your condition doesn't match a listing, Social Security will next consider how your impairment affects your ability to return to work you've done before. Can you still do any of your past jobs? If you can't, Social Security will then determine if you can do (or learn to do) any other kind of work.

When you're older than 45, Social Security uses a grid system based on the following factors:

  • your medical condition(s)
  • your age
  • your education
  • your past work experience, and
  • any transferable skills you have.

If Social Security finds that there's no other kind of work you can do, you will qualify for disability benefits. learn more about getting disability benefits without meeting a listing.

After Approval: How Does Disability Work?

After you're approved for disability benefits, you won't receive SSDI benefits until you've been disabled for five full months, because SSDI has a five-month waiting period. If you're approved right away (for instance, because you just had a liver transplant), you would still have to wait five months for your checks to start.

However, it's more likely you wouldn't be approved for about six months to a year (and after at least one level of appeal). In that case, when you finally get approved, you'd be paid disability backpay starting on the first of the sixth month after your disability began (your disability onset date).

After you're paid any backpay you're owed, you'd begin getting disability benefits each month (usually through direct deposit to your bank account). The date you'll receive your payment depends on your birthday. Here's an SSDI payment calendar for 2023 showing you on which Wednesdays you'll receive your deposit.

If your household income is over a certain amount, you'll have to pay taxes on your disability benefits.

You can keep receiving SSDI as long as your medical condition prevents you from working. Social Security will perform a continuing disability review (CDR) of your file every one to three years to determine if your condition has improved enough for you to return to work. (Learn how you can try going back to work without risking your SSDI benefits.)

Denial of Social Security Disability Benefits

If your application for SSDI is denied (most initial applications are), you can appeal the decision. You have to request a review of the denial within 60 days of the date of the denial letter you receive.

The first step of the appeal process is the "request for reconsideration," a review of your file by a different disability claims examiner. If you're denied again, you can appeal to the next stage, by requesting a hearing with an administrative law judge (ALJ) who works for the SSA. This is the stage where most winning appeals happen.

Learn more about Social Security denials and the appeals process.

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