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Social Security Disability Insurance: Your Guide to SSDI Benefits

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
June 9, 2022  ·  5 min read
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Atticus offers free, high-quality disability advice for Americans who can't work. Our team of Stanford and Harvard trained lawyers has a combined 15+ years of legal experience, and have helped over 10,000 Americans apply for disability benefits.

See if you qualify

If you cannot work because of a medical condition, there’s a good chance you qualify for monthly payments and free health insurance from the U.S. government’s Social Security program. 

Not everyone with a serious condition is eligible, and government rules can make qualifying a nightmare. At Atticus, we help cut through the red tape and get you the benefits you need. 

We’ll help you determine your eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance and what to do next.

Jump to:

  1. What is Social Security Disability Insurance?

  2. How to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance

  3. How much are Social Security benefits?

  4. When should I apply for disability benefits?

  5. How does the disability application process work?

  6. Do I need a disability lawyer?

  7. Frequently asked questions about disability benefits

What is Social Security Disability Insurance?

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a government program that supports Americans who can’t work due to a medical condition. When someone says they’re “on disability,” they usually mean they are getting benefits from Social Security Disability. 

The program is huge: About 10 million disabled workers receive SSDI today, and about 2% of every U.S. paycheck goes to fund the program via taxes. 

Social Security Disability Insurance benefits

SSDI beneficiaries receive monthly payments and free health care through Medicare, after a waiting period. For people with disabilities, Social Security disability benefits can be life-changing. 

Disability Benefits and Medicare Card

How to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance

Qualifying for SSDI is never easy: The government treats claims with suspicion and rejects most applicants. To be eligible, you must meet the criteria below:

  1. You’re under 66 years old (full retirement age)

  2. You’re getting treatment for a serious medical condition

  3. Because of your medical condition, you can’t realistically hold a job

  4. You’re not currently working (or if you are, it’s part-time and does not qualify as substantial gainful activity)

  5. You’re not expected to recover (or be able to work) within a year

  6. You have at least 40 work credits and have paid Social Security taxes

SSDI is one of two federal disability programs. You might qualify for a related program called Supplemental Security Income (SSI) if you have a limited work history and few assets. 

Learn more about the differences between SSDI and SSI.

Medical conditions that qualify for disability benefits

If you have a medical condition that makes it impossible to work and are getting treatment from a doctor, you may qualify for disability benefits. If you can work or aren’t getting much treatment, you probably won’t qualify.

The Social Security Administration’s Listing of Impairments, also known as the Blue Book, outlines the conditions that meet the SSA’s definition of disability and provides eligibility requirements for specific conditions. 

The formal guidelines are complicated, but it boils down to this: If your condition has a big impact on your life even though you’re getting treatment, and as a result, you just can’t hold a job, you’ll probably qualify for benefits with proper help.

Read our in-depth guide on qualifying medical conditions for more information.

How many work credits do you need for SSDI?

To qualify for SSDI, you generally need 40 work credits, 20 of which were earned in the last 10 years ending with the year you became disabled. In 2024, you earn one credit for every $1,730 in your paycheck, whether from wages or self-employment income. You can earn up to four credits per calendar year, capping out when you reach $6,920. 

You can create an SSA account on the SSA’s official website (ssa.gov) to check your number of work credits and eligibility. 

Check out our full guide on work credits, including information for state employees, nonprofit workers, and self-employed applicants. 

What is SGA?

Substantial gainful activity (SGA) is work you do that requires physical or mental effortin exchange for pay. The 2024, the SGA limit is $1,550 per month, or $2,590 if you’re blind.

Learn more about what income counts toward SGA with our in-depth article.

Get help applying for Social Security Disability Insurance.

How much are Social Security benefits?

SSDI beneficiaries receive a monthly check, at a maximum of $3,822 in 2024. The average monthly amount of disability payments, however, is $1,537. 

Estimate your disability benefit amount in just a few steps

We'll use the Social Security Administration's formula to estimate your monthly benefit.

monthly check


Disability recipients also receive a lump sum of back pay or retroactive benefits between the disability onset and applying for benefits.

Your monthly benefits payment depends on your employment history, earnings, and how much you’ve paid in Social Social taxes during your working years.

Read more about how SSDI payments and back pay are calculated.

SSDI amounts

What other benefits can I get with SSDI?

SSDI beneficiaries can also get other benefits, including extra money for members of your family, forgiveness of student loan debt, an easier time qualifying for other programs, and higher Social Security Retirement payments later in life. There’s no downside to receiving benefits, and it’s free to apply.

For more information, read our guide on other benefits available to SSDI beneficiaries.

When should I apply for disability benefits?

You should apply as soon as it is clear that your condition will last a year and you have the evidence to prove it. Sometimes, that takes a while to figure out. Your doctor may need to run tests and try a variety of treatments before they know how long your condition will last. 

Other times, it is clear right away that a disability is long-lasting. Once your doctor is pretty sure that your condition will keep you out of work for a full year, there is no reason to wait to apply for benefits.

Atticus exists to help people navigate this process — so the easiest thing to do is get free advice tailored to your situation via our online tools or caring staff. (People love us, and we don’t charge anything for our help.)

How does the disability application process work?

The government fears people will exaggerate their medical problems to get free money. So it puts every applicant under a microscope. To win, you have to prove — beyond a doubt — that your medical condition is severe and disabling. 

There are two major stages in the application process, and most people will need to go through both:

  1. Initial application: You submit a lengthy written application, details on past work and treatment, and copies of your medical records. A government staffer at a state agency reads your file and makes a decision. (Only 20% of people win at this stage; the majority are denied.)

  2. Appeals: If you lose, you appeal your denial and eventually get a hearing with a judge. You submit additional evidence at the hearing, speak to the judge directly, and cross-examine government experts. (Among people who make it to this stage, about 50% win. If you lose, there are a few more stages of appeal.)

Read more about the disability application process, step-by-step.

How long does it take to get approved for disability benefits?

Unfortunately, the process takes 7-8 months to get an initial decision and can take 1-2 years (or more) to get a hearing. Even a small mistake or omission (like a doctor failing to send in records or a bad answer on a form) can doom an application. 

The good news is that once you win – even if it takes a long time and several appeals – you get “back pay” (retroactive benefits) for the time you should have been getting benefits.

Read our breakdown of how long each stage of the application process can take. 

Do I need a disability lawyer?

Because the process is complicated, most successful applicants get a lawyer (or trained non-lawyer representative) to help. Lawyers will pull together your medical records, write your application, advise you on getting proper medical treatment, submit all the paperwork, and (if needed) argue your case before a judge.

There are two big upsides to hiring a lawyer: (1) They do almost all the work for you and hold your hand through the process. (2) They increase your chance of winning. (Government studies show that people with a lawyer are three times as likely to qualify at the appeal stage.) 

Should I hire a disability attorney?

Most applicants should hire a lawyer or other professional. (There are exceptions — see, for example, our articles on Huntington’s disease or pancreatic cancer.)

Why? The government treats all but the most serious conditions with skepticism. Having assistance from an expert can make all the difference. There are only a handful of situations where we tell people to consider applying on their own:

  1. If your condition is so severe that no one — not even the most skeptical judge — would believe you could hold a job. (This is the case if you have a terminal condition, or you’re seeing a specialist often, and still have extremely serious limitations, and need a lot of help in your daily life, and you haven’t worked in years.) If this is the case, you can likely win on your own if you feel comfortable with government paperwork (about the same as filing taxes) and requesting medical records.

  2. If you can’t convince a lawyer to take your case. Sadly, this can happen; finding a lawyer to represent you can be difficult if your case is quite hard to win. (Though we recommend trying our service before you give up!) In this case, you can apply on your own and then try again to find a lawyer once you’ve been denied once — at which point it’s often easier.

How much does a disability lawyer cost?

Disability lawyers aren’t allowed to charge an up-front fee, so it doesn’t matter if you can afford one. If they win your case, they get 25% of any retroactive benefits they win for you. This is worth it for almost everyone — you only pay if you win (if you lose, you pay nothing), you only pay once, and the cost pales compared to the amount you get.

Get help with your disability application

Atticus is a new kind of law firm that helps you navigate the early stages of a disability claim. We help you choose the right approach, hire the right lawyer, and get on with your life. We won’t charge you a dime for our services, so there’s no cost to you.

Get help applying for Social Security Disability Insurance.

Frequently asked questions about disability benefits

What do you get with disability benefits?

Disability benefits offer monthly checks and free or low-cost health insurance if you can’t work anymore because of a medical condition.There are two types of federal benefits. SSDI offers payments plus Medicare. SSI is an option for low-income individuals and includes Medicaid.

How much do disability benefits pay?

SSDI pays up to $3,822 per month in 2024, but the average SSDI check is around $1,500. Your exact check is based on your income and tax history. SSI pays up to $943 per month with your other monthly income subtracted from that maximum amount to find your benefit amount.

When should I apply for disability benefits?

We recommend you apply for benefits as soon as you know you’ll be unable to work. The application process can take a while — a year or longer for the average person. The sooner you submit your application, the sooner you can get benefits.

Do I need a lawyer to apply for disability benefits?

Not technically, but hiring one is worthwhile for most applicants. The SSA denies most initial applications and a lawyer increases your chances of winning an appeal. If you’re applying for state benefits or private disability benefits, you probably don’t need a lawyer.

Are there other types of disability benefits?

Beside Social Security disability, there are short-term disability benefits for people in a very small number of states. Injured workers can access workers’ comp and veterans can apply for VA disability. Anyone who already had a private disability insurance plan can also file a claim for those benefits. Learn more about the types of disability benefits.

Related resources:

What Conditions Qualify for Disability?

A hand drawn image of the lead disability lawyer.
By Jackie Jakab

Everything You Should Know About Disability Benefits (SSDI and SSI)

By Sarah Aitchison

See what you qualify for

How long has your condition made it hard to work?

Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney

Jackie Jakab

Lead Attorney

Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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