By Tereasa Rerko, Esq.
We are often asked to explain to clients why they don’t financially qualify for disability benefits, even though they worked most of their lives. A client might see a neighbor receiving disability benefits from the Social Security Administration, and that neighbor never worked. What the client may not realize is that the Social Security Administration (SSA) provides disability benefits to qualified individuals both with and without a work history.
The neighbor is probably receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits (SSI), which are benefits for disabled individuals without a current work history. In order to receive SSI benefits, a person must not only be disabled under the SSA rules, but must also meet extra guidelines regarding income and assets. These guidelines are very strict regarding maximum monthly income and total assets. If those guidelines are exceeded, the person will not be eligible to receive SSI benefits - even if they are disabled. Also, SSI benefit amounts are generally the same for every person who receives them.
On the other hand, Social Security Disability benefits (SSD) are based upon your own personal lifetime earnings record and your ability to show that you are disabled within a certain time frame. This time frame typically expires five years from when you last worked, although you need to have made enough money in past calendar quarters as well. (You might compare it to unemployment compensation, where you need to earn at least a minimum amount of income in the correct calendar quarters or you won’t qualify for unemployment benefits even if you lose your job.) The amount of SSD benefits that a person may receive is based completely upon that person’s earnings history and, like snowflakes, no two are alike. Suffice it to say, most monthly SSD payments are much higher than the SSI monthly benefit.
The one thing that both SSD and SSI do share is the set of rules that SSA uses to decide if you are indeed disabled. The rules are exactly the same for both programs. Generally speaking, in order to qualify as "disabled" under the rules of SSA, a person must be unable to perform the duties of their past occupations and also the duties of any other occupation that exists in the national economy.