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SSDI or SSI? What are the differences and basics?

What is considered a disability? How do you apply?


Updated: August 3, 2004

Social Security Administration

The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability programs are the largest of several Federal programs providing assistance to people with disabilities. There is often confusion about which program is more appropriate for an individual. Let's take a look at the basics about both programs.

While these programs are different in many ways, both are administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and only individuals who have a disability and meet medical criteria may qualify for benefits under either program.

(SSDI) is financed with Social Security taxes paid by workers, employers and self-employed persons. To be eligible, the worker must earn sufficient credits based on taxable work. Disability benefits are payable to disabled workers, disabled widow(er)'s or adults disabled since childhood, who are otherwise eligible. Auxiliary benefits may be payable to a worker's dependents. Monthly disability benefit payment is based on the Social Security earnings record of the insured worker on whose Social Security number the disability claim is filed.

(SSI) is financed through general tax revenues. SSI disability benefits are payable to adults or children who are disabled or blind, who have limited income and resources, who meet the living arrangement requirements, and are otherwise eligible. Monthly payment varies up to the maximum federal benefit rate which is standardized in all States, but not everyone gets the same amount because it may be supplemented by the State or decreased by other income and resources.

When you apply for either program, the SSA collects medical and other information from you to make a decision about whether or not you meet Social Security's definition of disability.

Social Security's definition of disability:

    The definition of disability under Social Security is different than other programs. Social Security pays only for total disability. No benefits are payable for partial disability or for short-term disability.

    Disability under Social Security is based on your inability to work. You are considered disabled under SSA rules if you cannot do work that you did before and they decide that you cannot adjust to other work because of your medical condition(s). Your disability must also last or be expected to last for at least one year or to result in death.

The five steps the SSA uses determine if you are disabled:

  1. Are you working?
  2. Is your condition "severe"?
  3. Is your condition found in the list of disabling conditions?
  4. Can you do the work you did previously?
  5. Can you do any other type of work?

Special situations:
Most people who receive disability benefits are workers who qualify on their own records and meet the work and disability requirements described above. However, there are some special situations:

  • People who are blind or have low vision.
  • Benefits for widows or widowers who are disabled.
  • Benefits for children who are disabled.

Applying for Social Security Disability Benefits:

WHEN to Apply:

    You should apply as soon as you become disabled. If you apply for:

    • SSDI: disability benefits will not begin until the sixth full month of disability. The Social Security disability waiting period begins with the first full month after the date the SSA decides your disability began.
    • SSI: the SSA pays SSI disability benefits for the first full month after the date you filed your claim, or, if later, the date you become eligible for SSI.

HOW to Apply:

    There are several ways to apply for SSDI:

    SSI applications are not taken online. You may apply:

    • By telephone at the numbers above.
    • By going to your local Social Security office.

You may have someone act as a representative to help you deal with the SSA. They will work with your representative as if they were working with you once the authorization paperwork has been completed. Once you appoint a representative, he or she can act on your behalf in most Social Security. For more information about having someone act as a representative for you, click here.

More information and getting started:
The SSA has a great deal of information and many forms available on their web site. One of the most helpful of these is their new Disability Starter Kit. You can find it and other valuable publications at http://www.ssa.gov/disability.html.

Although SSDI and SSI are both administered by the Social Security Administration, they are intended for completely different types of cases. Being sure you're applying for the correct one can save you a great deal of time, confusion, and frustration. The SSA's web site and publications can take a lot of the mystery and guess work out of the process.

>>For a more in-depth version of this article, click HERE.

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