How to File for Disability without a Strong Work History (Updated for 2024)

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).

Further Reading: What Is SSI?

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.

If you do not have a work history, you may still qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSI is based on financial need, not on work history, allowing those who have not worked still qualify for benefits.

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.

Further Reading: What Conditions Qualify For Disability?

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 when applying 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 File for Disability without a Strong Work History

What If I Don’t Have Enough Work Credits for Disability Benefits?

If you don’t have enough work credits for disability, you still may be able to qualify for disability benefits, however you will need to apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Benefits. SSI Benefits is a needs-based program.

It is only for individuals who have a disability that keeps them from working full time and have very little income. Unlike SSDI benefits, you do not have to worry about work credits in order to be awarded SSI benefits.

You can still qualify for disability even if you don't have a strong work history

In order to qualify for SSI benefits, you need to have a disability that keeps you from being able to work for at least 12 months or more and not have more than $2,000 worth of assets or $3,000 worth of assets if you are married.

So, you can still get disability benefits if you don’t have enough work credits or if you don’t have a work history, but you will need to apply for SSI benefits instead of SSDI benefits.

Why SSDI Requires Work Credits

SSDI benefits is an insurance program. Every time you get your paycheck at your work, you pay premiums through Social Security deductions that your employer takes out of your paycheck to send to the government on your behalf.

That money that is taken out of your paycheck every time you get paid is used to fund programs like SSDI benefits and retirement benefits.

So in order to qualify for SSDI benefits, you have enough work credits to qualify. Work credits are calculated by how old you are and how long you have worked.

In 2024, for example, you earn one credit for each $1,550 in wages. You can earn up to 4 work credits for each year you have worked.

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.

You can still qualify for disability even if you don't have a strong work history

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.

After you send in your initial application for SSI benefits, it will usually take the SSA between 30 to 90 days to get back to you with a decision. You have the option of appealing the SSA’s decision if your claim is denied initially.

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.

Can You Get Disability Benefits If You Never Worked?

If you have never worked, resulting in no work credits, you may still qualify for disability benefits. This is because there are two types of disability benefits supported by the Social Security Administration (SSA). The first is based on accumulated work credits based on amount earned and years of work while the second is based on the value of income and assets that an applicant has.

As long as your disability meets the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Blue Book criteria and you are within the income limits then you can still get disability benefits regardless of never working.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a federally funded program paid through general tax revenues but not through Social Security taxes. It provides monthly payments to those who have a limited income and few resources. It is in place to meet the recipient’s basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. The amount paid depends on the recipients living arrangement and countable income. You may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) if you are living alone and if your resources are just $2,000 or less. For a couple the resources limit is $3,000. It is important to note that you do not need to have worked in order to qualify for SSI.

Those who are eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) must have the following features:

  • be at least aged 65 years old, or blind or disabled;
  • have a limited income which includes wages, pensions, etc;
  • possess limited assets that you own.

In 2024, the SSA's Federal monthly maximums for SSI payments are $472 for an "essential person," $1,415 for an individual who is eligible and also has an eligible spouse, and $932 for an individual who is eligible. Thus, you can expect to receive anywhere between $472 to $1,415 in monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. And, as you might deduce from this information, the specific monthly amount you can expect to receive from SSI is dependent on a variety of factors—most poignantly, whether you are an "essential person," single and living alone, or married and living with your spouse.

How An Attorney Can Help You Apply for Disability Benefits

There are many conditions that qualify for disability benefits. If you have a disability without a work history, you can still apply for disability benefits and may be approved, even if you don’t have enough work credits for disability benefits.

If that is the case, then you may want to work with a Social Security attorney. An attorney can help guide you through the Social Security application process.

Your attorney can look at your work history, or lack thereof and could advise you that you may have a better chance of getting approved if you apply for SSI benefits as opposed to SSDI benefits.

You can still qualify for disability even if you don't have a strong work history

A Social Security Attorney can help you get Social Security disability benefits, even if you do not have enough work credits. Your attorney can help make sure you have all of your paperwork in order, including records from your employer or past employers, your medical records and your financial information if you are applying for SSI benefits.

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.

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