Social Security provides more than just retirement benefits. Those who become very sick or disabled may also be eligible for benefits from the Social Security Administration that are a lifeline when working becomes impossible. Unfortunately, these benefits are available only under limited circumstances. 

Here's when Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits could be an option for you. 

Older woman being pushed in a wheelchair by a caregiver.

Image source: Getty Images.

When do you qualify?

While SSD benefits can be an important source of income for the disabled, you only qualify if:

  • Your disabling condition has lasted a year, will likely last a year, or will be terminal.
  • You aren't engaged in "substantial gainful activity," which involves working and earning above a certain income level.
  • Your disabling condition prevents you from doing a job for which you are otherwise qualified.
  • Your condition is on the List of Impairments the Social Security Administration has created, and you have the required symptoms, or your medical problems are as severe as those that are on the List of Impairments.

For many sick or injured Americans, proving they meet the definition of disabled can be a challenge. Getting approved for benefits generally requires substantial medical documentation of your ailment, with most of the details coming from a specialist (like a cardiologist for those seeking benefits based on a heart condition). It's also common for applicants to have their claims denied and be forced to appeal in order to secure benefits. 

If you can prove you are disabled, you should be entitled to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) if you've worked long enough and earned a sufficient number of work credits. This isn't a means-tested program, but rather an earned benefit, and the amount of income you receive each month will be based on the wages you earned while working.

If you don't have enough work credits to qualify for SSDI, you may be able to get benefits through a different program called Supplemental Security Income (SSI). But this is a needs-based program, so you must have limited assets and a low household income to qualify, and you'll receive a standard monthly benefit not based on past earnings. 

Unfortunately, SSD benefits are not available to those with only short-term conditions or to individuals who can still do some work despite having a medical problem. If you cannot work because of an illness, such as COVID-19, but you're expected to recover in under a year, the Social Security Administration won't provide benefits for you.

If you want to make sure you're protected in case this occurs, purchasing a short-term disability insurance policy may be your best option (although a limited number of states do provide some help for those suffering from short-term conditions). Coronavirus relief legislation also provided some paid sick leave, so if COVID-19 has prevented you from working, you should look into whether these benefits could help you. 

Because Social Security Disability benefits can take time to get approved, it's best to act as soon as you become sick or injured and can't continue to hold a job. Work with your doctor to document your ailments and begin the application process ASAP so you'll have the money you need.