If you’ve worked a full-time job in the United States, you’ve probably been earning work credits whether you realized it or not. These work credits are based on your income, and they’re part of what makes you eligible for disability benefits.
But not every situation is cut and dry. People who have worked for nonprofits, for themselves, or who have never worked, might not have work credits at all, which could make things tricky if you’re hoping to apply for SSDI.
Here’s what to expect in different situations and how many work credits you need for SSDI.
Work credits for disability are earned from the SSA based on your income. For every $1,640 in your paycheck in 2023 (whether that’s wages or self-employment income), you get one credit. This maxes out at four credits per year — so when you’ve earned $6,560, you won’t be able to earn any additional credits that calendar year.
Think of Social Security Disability (SSDI) like insurance. You pay into it with your paychecks. If you pay enough over time, you’ll be able to receive disability benefits if you need them.
SSDI looks at how many work credits you have to help them determine whether you’re eligible for disability. If you don’t have enough credits, you won’t be able to receive benefits.
According to Social Security, you generally need 40 credits for disability, 20 of which were earned in the last 10 years ending with the year you became disabled.
This means that if you’ve worked five or more years out of the past 10 years, you should be eligible for SSDI.
If you’re 24 years old or younger and you’ve worked 1.5 years in the past three, you’re most likely eligible. Similarly, if you’re 24-30 years old and you’ve worked three years in the past six, you’re likely eligible.
The more work history you have, the more likely you are to have enough work credits to qualify for SSDI. However, there are some exceptions and special scenarios that it’s good to be aware of.
If you are self-employed, you must declare your income and file self-employment taxes to receive work credits. This includes jobs such as:
You need to file self-employment taxes to accumulate work credits and be eligible for SSDI.
If you work for the state, you might need to opt-in to SSA taxes depending on where you live. Not all states automatically deduct these taxes. Check your state-specific SSDI laws and confirm that your paychecks have social security taxes deducted.
Some nonprofits don’t pay into SSA. This means that even though you’re working, you might not be earning credits. Check your work credits if you aren’t sure whether your paychecks took out Social Security taxes.
Date Last Insured (DLI) refers to the date you last had enough credits to qualify for SSDI. To be eligible for SSDI, you must have worked at least five years out of the past 10. This means that people are generally still eligible for a few years after they stop working.
If you worked for five consecutive years before you stopped, you can find your DLI by taking the last year you worked and adding five years to it. For instance, if you worked from 2008 to 2018, your DLI would be 2023. In other words, 2023 would be the last year you’d be eligible for SSDI.
You can find out how many work credits you have by using the SSA.gov website. You’ll also be able to access an estimate of how much your SSDI payment would be.
To check your work credits, follow these steps:
If this section states that you have enough credits to qualify for disability benefits, you can apply for SSDI. This page will also tell you approximately how much money you would receive per month if you apply for disability now.
If you don’t have enough work credits, but you have very limited income and assets, you won’t qualify for SSDI. However, you can apply for SSI.
SSI is different from SSDI. While SSDI is based on work credits, SSI is a low-income federal disability program. It’s geared for disabled people who don’t have much income or many assets. SSI is open to people who haven’t worked recently — and even people who have never had a job at all.
Check the full requirements for SSI to make sure you qualify. Then start your application online or via phone.
Alternatively, if you are close to the credits needed, and are able to work a limited amount of hours, you may be able to build up additional work credits before applying for SSDI.
A lawyer can help you determine whether SSDI or SSI is the best fit based on your work credits and other qualifications. At Atticus, we're happy to give free legal advice that points you in the right direction. Click here to get started.
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