What is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

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Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a federal program that gives monthly cash benefits to people who have worked, paid Social Security taxes, and now have disabilities that limit their ability to work. After you get SSDI for 24 months (two years), you automatically qualify for Medicare health coverage.

Note: Some people call SSDI by other names, such as “DI,” “Title II,” “Social Security disability benefits,” or “Social Security benefits.” However, this can cause confusion with other programs.

What is the difference between Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)?

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Social Security has two disability benefits programs with very similar names:

Some people qualify for both programs at the same time. If you get benefits from Social Security, but aren’t sure which ones you get, order a free Benefits Planning Query (BPQY) at your local Social Security office or by calling 1-800-772-1213 or 1-800-325-0778 (TTY).

What are Childhood Disability Benefits (CDB)?

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Childhood Disability Benefits (CDB) are similar to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Adults who have a disability that began before they turned 22 can get CDB benefits based on the taxes their parents paid into the Social Security system. Unlike SSDI, you do not need to have worked to qualify for CDB.

Learn more about CDB.

Whom can I call to ask questions about Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

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If you have questions about Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and need to talk with somebody, call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 or 1-800-325-0778 (TTY) or visit your local Social Security office.

If you want to ask about how work might affect your SSDI benefits, try contacting:

Who is eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

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To qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Social Security must decide that you have a disability. You also need to have worked a certain amount of time and contributed enough in Social Security taxes.

Social Security uses a series of tests to decide if you qualify. As a general rule, if you've accumulated enough work credits and your disabling condition is severe enough to keep you from engaging in any Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA), you qualify for SSDI benefits.

How long it takes Social Security to decide if you have a disability varies. Sometimes, it only takes a month or two, while other times it takes more than a year. The average is around six months.

How is my Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefit calculated?

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Your Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits amount is based on how much you’ve earned from work over your lifetime. After you start getting benefits, you usually get a small increase in your benefits amount each January to account for changes in the cost of living.

Your SSDI benefits amount may be lower if you get certain types of income, such as Workers' Compensation or government pensions.

Does Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) come with health coverage?

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You automatically qualify for Medicare after you get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits for 24 months (two years). Medicare coverage continues as long as you’re getting SSDI benefits, and for up to 93 months (seven years, nine months) after your SSDI Trial Work Period ends.

Learn more about Medicare in DB101's How Health Benefits Work article.

How do I apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

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You can apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI):

What information do I have to give Social Security when I apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

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You may need to give all of the following when you apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI):
  • Names, addresses, and phone numbers of all doctors, hospitals, and clinics that have given you medical treatment; you also need to give dates of treatment
  • Names of any medications you are taking
  • Copies of any medical records you have
  • Your Social Security Number and the Social Security Numbers for your spouse and any children you have who are minors
  • A certified copy of your birth certificate
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or legal residency, if you were born in another country
  • A certified copy of your military discharge papers (Form DD 214), if you were in the military
  • Your most recent W-2 Form or, if you’re self-employed, your most recent federal tax return
  • Information on any Workers’ Compensation you get
  • A summary of all jobs you have had during the past 15 years (names of jobs and dates)

What is Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA)?

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Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) is one of the measures that Social Security uses to figure out whether or not you have a disability.

If your monthly countable earned income is greater than the SGA level ($1,260 per month in 2020; $2,110 if you’re blind), you are not considered to have a disability.

Note: You may be able to reduce your countable earned income if you get a wage subsidy or have Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs). Learn more about these deductions.

If you are self-employed, Social Security looks at more than just your income, because the amount of money you actually get from your business depends on many different factors. Learn about the three tests Social Security uses to see if a self-employed person is working at the SGA level.

Will the money I have in the bank or my other resources affect my eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

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No. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) does not have a resource limit. No matter how much you have in resources, you may still qualify for SSDI.

How do I know if my disability qualifies me for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

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Social Security, together with Alaska Disability Determination Services (DDS), follows a five-step process to see whether your impairments meet their standards for disability. Learn more about the disability determination process.

What is the Trial Work Period (TWP)?

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The Trial Work Period (TWP) is a set of nine Trial Work months over the course of five years during which you can try out working without losing your Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, no matter how much you earn.

During this five-year window, any month where your gross earnings are over the Trial Work level ($910 in 2020) is considered a Trial Work month. Your nine Trial Work months could be in a row or could be spread out over the five years. During your Trial Work months, you continue to get full SSDI benefits.

If you earn less in a month than the Trial Work level, you still get SSDI benefits and do not use up a Trial Work month.

Note: The Trial Work level changes every year.

What is the Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE)?

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After you use up your Trial Work Period (TWP), a three-year Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE) begins. The first time your monthly gross earnings reach the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level during the EPE, there’s a three-month Grace Period during which you keep getting SSDI benefits no matter how much you make. (SGA is $1,260 per month in 2020; $2,110 if you’re blind.)

Once your Grace Period ends, you do not get SSDI benefits in any month during the EPE when your countable monthly earnings go over the SGA level. If your earned income drops back under the SGA level, you can call Social Security and get your benefits reinstated. During the EPE, you can keep getting SSDI benefits for any month during which your earnings are at or below the SGA level.

What is Expedited Reinstatement?

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If you used to get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits and your benefits ended within the last five years, Expedited Reinstatement means you can get up to six months of temporary SSDI cash benefits if your countable earned income drops below the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level. During your period of Expedited Reinstatement, you can deduct Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs) and employer subsidies from your gross monthly earnings to help you qualify for SSDI benefits.

During the six months of temporary benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) does a medical review to see whether or not you still meet SSA disability requirements. If Social Security decides that you still have a disability, you keep getting benefits without having to reapply for SSDI. If they decide that you no longer have a disability, your SSDI benefits stop.

Do I need to let Social Security know if I go back to work?

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Yes. For Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), you must tell Social Security right away if:
  • You start or stop work
  • You reported your work, but your duties, hours, or pay change; or
  • You start paying expenses for work because of your disability.

If you don’t, you risk getting an overpayment and you may have to pay back those benefits to Social Security.

To report changes, contact your local Social Security office and ask how and when you should report your earnings. You may be able to report:

If you get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits and also get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, you must report your income to SSDI and SSI separately. For SSI, you may have to report your income and other changes in your situation each month. Learn more about SSI income reporting in DB101's SSI and APA article.

If you get Medicaid coverage or get other state benefits, like Adult Public Assistance (APA), Alaska Temporary Assistance Program (ATAP), or Food Stamps, report changes in your income to your local Division of Public Assistance (DPA) office.

Get a binder for your records

Social Security periodically verifies your situation. That’s why you should get a binder and keep copies of all of your records from the last five years in it, including:

Take your binder with you whenever you go to a Social Security office, and take notes in it every time you communicate with Social Security.

If Social Security denies my application for SSDI benefits, can I appeal the decision?

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Yes. If your application is denied (which is not unusual), you can appeal the decision. More than half of all appeals are successful.

The appeals process may take several months. If your application is denied for medical reasons and you want to appeal it, you need to submit an Appeal Request and Appeal Disability Report. The report asks you for updated information about your medical condition and any treatment, tests, or doctor visits you've had since Social Security made their decision.

If your application is denied based on nonmedical reasons, you should contact your local Social Security office to request a review. You can also call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 or 1-800-325-0778 (TTY) to request a review.

If you would like help with your appeal, you can contact the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) at 1-800-431-2804 to find an attorney who represents people who think they’ve been unfairly denied Social Security benefits. The Disability Law Center of Alaska (1-800-478-1234) and Alaska Legal Services are statewide legal resources that can help.

Learn more about appeals.