A:

The average Social Security disability benefit amount for a recipient of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) in 2018 is $1,197 per month, but a beneficiary can receive either less than this or up to $2,788. These benefits are based on average lifetime earnings, not on household income or how severe the individual's disability is. If you've kept your annual Social Security statement, you can find what you are likely to receive in the Estimated Benefits section. The total amount a disabled worker and his or her family can receive is about 150% to 180% of the disabled worker's benefit. Eligible family members can include a spouse, divorced spouse, children, a disabled child and/or an adult child disabled before age 22.

What Are Social Security Disability Benefits?

Social Security disability benefits come from payroll deductions required by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) to cover the cost of Social Security benefits such as retirement, spousal and survivors' benefits. Some of this funding goes into the Disability Insurance Trust Fund and pays for disability benefits.

According to the Social Security website, to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you must have worked a certain length of time in jobs covered by Social Security. Generally, you need 40 credits, 20 of which were earned in the last 10 years, ending with the year you became disabled. You must also have a medical condition that meets Social Security's definition of disability.

Social Security Disability Insurance should not be confused with Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which pays benefits to those who have financial need regardless of their work history. (For more information, see: What's the difference between Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)?)

Evaluation Process

While there are some conditions the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers so severe they automatically render an applicant disabled, many conditions require careful screening, including answering these five questions:

  1. Are you currently working? If you are working, and your earnings average more than $1,090 (in 2015), you will not be considered disabled. If you are not working, or your income falls below Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) limits, you move on to question two.
  2. Is your condition "severe"? If Social Security determines that your condition does not interfere with basic work-related activities, you will not be considered disabled. If your condition does interfere with basic work-related activities, you move on to question three.
  3. Is your condition found in the list of disabling conditions? Social Security maintains a list of disabling medical conditions that automatically qualify you as disabled. If your condition is not one of these, Social Security will determine if it is severe enough to qualify. If so, you will be considered disabled and your application will be approved. If not, you move on to question four.
  4. Can you do the work you did previously? If your condition does not interfere with your ability to do the work you used to do, you will not be considered disabled. If it does, you move on to question five.
  5. Can you do any other type of work? Finally, if you can’t do the work you did previously, Social Security will determine whether you can do some other type of work. If Social Security determines that you can adjust to other suitable work – taking into account your condition, age, education, previous work experience and other factors – you will not be considered disabled and your claim will be denied. If you cannot adjust, your claim will be approved. 

In addition, qualifying conditions must be expected to last at least one year or result in death.

When Payments Begin

Many people believe you have to be disabled for a certain period of time before you can apply for Social Security disability benefits. That is not true. You can (and should) apply as soon as you believe you are disabled. There is a mandatory waiting period of five months after your disability begins before you can start receiving benefits.

The Bottom Line

You should apply for Social Security disability benefits as soon as you become disabled. The application process can take three to five months, according to Social Security, and counts as part of the mandatory waiting period of five months after the onset of your disability.

You can apply at www.socialsecurity.gov or by calling 1-800-772-1213. Social Security has an online calculator you can use to obtain an estimate of both retirement and disability benefits for you and your family members.

(For related reading, see: Are my Social Security disability benefits taxable?)

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