According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), nearly 9 million Americans received disability benefits for at least part of 2015. Despite this fairly staggering number of beneficiaries, though, the SSA's disability insurance (SSDI) program has actually been declining around 65% of all applications over the last decade:
Most applications are reportedly denied for either medical reasons such as a lack of documentary evidence for the disability in question, or a technical error often pertaining to the applicant's work history. With this in mind, let's take a closer look at who can actually get disability benefits from the SSA, and how you can increase your chances of receiving an award.
Do I qualify for disability benefits from the SSA?
Unlike some other disability programs, the SSA is fairly strict in its requirements for disability benefits. For example, the SSA requires that an individual is unable to work as a result of a medical condition that can be either physical or mental in nature and that's expected to last at least one year or result in death. So, if you're just laid up for a few months, you don't qualify -- regardless of the severity of your specific disability. Complicating matters further, your treating physician has to be willing to verify your disability and provide medical evidence of its existence. On a final note, the SSA retains the right to make a judgement call if the medical condition only pertains to your specific vocation, but doesn't necessarily prohibit you from taking alternative forms of employment that you should reasonably qualify for based on your background and work history.
Besides having a disability that is expected to last at least a year, you will also need to pass the so-called "earnings tests." The first of these is known as the "recent work test," where you must have worked for a minimum length of time for your age prior to becoming disabled. For example, the SSA requires that a 24-year-old individual must have worked 1.5 years during the three-year period ending with the quarter in which the disability began.
The second earnings test is the "duration of work test" that ensures that you have worked long enough under Social Security to qualify for disability benefits. Put simply, you need to have earned enough Social Security credits within a specific time frame to qualify.
The following table from the SSA's website gives a brief overview of the duration of work test:
The good news is that some family members of disabled workers can also receive money from the SSA, if they meet certain guidelines. A person's spouse or unmarried child, for instance, can qualify for benefits based on your work history, depending on their personal circumstances (age, marital status, etc.).
One particularly noteworthy point here is that your unmarried child can qualify for his or her own disability benefits if their disability occurred before the age of 22. In fact, the SSA will waive the work requirements if the disability started before the person reached the age of 22 by enabling the individual to claim their parent's work credits.
If you feel that you meet these requirements, you can apply for disability benefits either online via the SSA's website or in person at a local Social Security office. Alternatively, you can also hire a law firm that handles disability cases to file an application, or an appeal if you were previously declined, on your behalf. In fact, many firms specializing in SSA disability benefit cases are willing provide a free screening to assess whether or not you qualify.
Summing up, the first hurdle to qualifying for disability benefits from the SSA is having a verifiable medical condition that keeps you from being able to work at your former position, or adjust to other types of work, for at least a year. Secondly, you need to have worked long enough -- in both the recent past and over the duration of your life -- to pass the earnings tests.
While these requirements may sound simple enough, the fact remains that the majority of claims are rejected by the SSA, and even those that are approved can take several months to process. As such, it's best to start this process as soon as possible and to make sure that your medical and work records clearly meet the criteria outlined above before applying. Otherwise, you could find yourself standing in an increasingly long line of appeals -- a process that will almost certainly require the assistance of an experienced attorney to successfully navigate.
Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.