When filing for Social Security disability benefits, you must establish two things for the Social Security Administration (SSA). First, you must show that you are disabled according to their stringent definition of disability. Second, you must show that you are eligible for Social Security programs.
In the case of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), this is based on how much you have worked in recent years. For Supplemental Security Income (SSI), this means you must show that you have a financial need (again, according to their guidelines and definition of need).
Filing for Social Security disability benefits without a strong work history is more difficult, but not impossible. While the SSA does require that you have worked, earned income, and paid into FICA in order to qualify for SSDI, the work requirements are not as stringent as you may think.
Regardless of your work history, you will still need to meet the medical requirements to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. This means you will have to meet the qualifications listed in the Blue Book for the condition you are experiencing.
How Much Work is Required?
The work requirement is on a sliding scale. Those who are younger or older will have an easier time qualifying with less work history than those who are in their 30s and 40s.
The basic requirement is that you have worked at least one “quarter” each year for the past ten years, but this is lessened somewhat in the case of workers who are not yet old enough to have worked ten years or those who are nearing retirement age and are more likely to be deemed incapable of adjusting to new kinds of work.
Quarters are a somewhat misleading term, however. To earn a quarter of coverage, you don’t need to work a full quarter of the year. As a matter of fact, you can earn four quarters of coverage (the maximum available in a single year) within the first couple months of the year if you earn enough money.
The amount of income (and FICA tax paid) required to earn a quarter of coverage is adjusted on a yearly basis, but most wage earners will have little trouble earning at least one quarter of coverage per year.
Put together what employment history you do have in order to apply for SSDI. While the regulations regarding employment history and eligibility are fairly cut and dried, you may be surprised to find that you have earned more quarters of coverage than you may have thought.
How to Find Your Work History
Each year the Social Security Administration provides a breakdown of your earnings, including your earnings for the previous year as well as a detailed report of your earnings history. You should receive a copy of this report by mail, but if you need a copy sooner than when it is sent out, you can request a Social Security Earnings report online or by phone.
Your earnings report will detail the years you worked, how much you made each year, the amount you paid into SSDI and the amount of money you would receive if you were to become disabled based on your earnings history through the last complete year of data. (If you request this data in the middle of the year, the amount would be based on data through the previous year.)
You can contact the Social Security Administration for more information about the information found in your earnings report. It’s a good idea to verify that the information included is accurate because this is what will determine your eligibility for SSI benefits and the amount you will receive.
In the event that you haven't worked enough to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits, you'll be able to get Supplemental Security Income benefits. Social Security has two programs to assist people who are incapable of working due to a debilitating condition (or conditions).
Applying for SSI Instead
If you don’t have enough quarters of coverage to qualify for SSDI, you should still apply for SSI. SSI is not based on your work history. Rather, it is based on your financial need and your disability. In order to qualify, you will need to report any earnings you have, as well as any assets.
The income guidelines are somewhat stringent, and you are not allowed to own more than $2,000 worth of assets, excluding your home and a single vehicle.
If you are disabled and you have worked for five out the past ten years, you should apply for SSDI. If you haven’t worked enough to qualify, or if you income is low enough (even if you do qualify for SSDI), you should still apply for SSI.
How to Apply for SSI
The first step to applying for is to fill out the application. You have some choices as to how you fill it out: You can apply online on the SSA website, you can print or pick up an application and mail it in, or you can file in person at your local SSA office.
The benefit to filing online is that your application is considered active from the moment you start it. If you want to be considered for back pay and it takes some time for you to gather all of your information, your start date is based on when you start working on the application, not when you submit it.
If filing a paper application, you can submit a Protective Filing Date (PFD) to indicate your intent to submit an application. A PFD is a written statement that indicates your intention to file a claim, and once submitted to the SSA it will serve as the start date for your application even though you have not submitted your claim.
Once complete, you can submit your application online, in person at the local SSA branch or by mail. Make sure you have copies of your printed application in case your application is lost in the mail.
Medically Qualifying for SSI
In order to qualify for SSI, you must provide detailed information about your medical condition and how it relates to you inability to work. The starting point is a report from your physician that details your medical history as it pertains to your diagnosis.
You should include all lab tests, blood test results, imaging results if applicable (including CT scans, MRI, x-rays etc), surgeries when applicable and your treatment plan. Your treatment plan should detail medications prescribed, treatments (chemotherapy, physical therapy, etc) and how you are responding to your treatment, as well as any side effects suffered as a result of the treatment.
You will be required to sign a release so that the SSC may contact your doctors with any questions they have, so make sure you have a list of all medical personnel who have worked on your case along with their contact information. Given that the SSA relies on the information provided to make a determination on your eligibility for SSI, you might consider working with a Social Security attorney who specializes in filing claims for disability benefits.
The advantage of hiring a lawyer is that a lawyer understands what medical evidence you need to file your claim and can help ensure that you have everything you need. Hiring a Social Security lawyer can help ease the stress of the filing process by having an advocate or attorney working on your behalf.
Some Social Security lawyers work on a contingency basis so you won’t need to pay anything unless you win your case while others work on an hourly basis. Be sure you are clear on your lawyer’s fee structure in advance.
Speak With an Attorney
Maneuvering the Social Security Disability system can be tricky at times, and most claimants should strongly consider using the services of an experienced Social Security Disability lawyer.
Not only are they thoroughly familiar with the laws regarding Social Security Disability, but they also know how to put your claim together in a manner which is more likely to result in an acceptance. Disability attorneys work on a contingency basis, meaning they will not be paid unless you win your disability claim.