Mar 8, 2024

The Ultimate Cheat Sheet: Social Security Disability Benefits Questions Answered


Applying for Social Security disability benefits can be overwhelming. You need to gather all kinds of paperwork and navigate technical terms on the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) website. 

It’s even more stressful if you are trying to appeal a denial decision. For all of these reasons, we decided to create a definitive cheat sheet. 

Here are our answers to the top nine questions about Social Security disability:

1. How Do I Apply for Social Security Disability? 

  • Apply online.  
  • Contact by phone at 800-772-1213 (or TTY at 800-325-0778 if you are deaf or hard of hearing). Make an appointment with an SSA representative to help you apply for benefits. 
  • Inquire in person at your local Social Security office.

2. What Is the Difference Between Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income? 

Social Security Disability Insurance

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is for people who have earned employment credits by working and paying into the Social Security system. They did the latter by having FICA taxes taken out of their paycheck or paying self-employed taxes. 

Some of the requirements for SSDI are having enough work credits, suffering from a condition that’s considered severe and expected to last for a minimum of 12 months, and the inability to perform “substantial gainful activity” (see question 5). 

Supplemental Security Income

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)  is a needs-based program that determines eligibility based on an applicant’s income and assets instead of looking at work credits like SSDI. The qualifications for SSI include earning a very low income and having less than $2,000 in assets or $3,000 for a couple.

It’s a good idea to apply for SSI if you don’t have enough work credits for SSDI and you are below the asset limit.

3. Can My Spouse and Children Get Social Security Benefits? 

SSDI Recipients 

The children and spouses of SSDI recipients might be eligible for monthly Social Security payments. 

Your spouse can qualify under these circumstances if: 

  • They are over 62 years old.
  • They are caring for a child under 16 years old.
  • They are taking care of a child with disabilities (no age limit).

If your spouse falls under any of these categories, they can be eligible for a monthly benefit that is up to 50% of the monthly amount you collect.  

Your children (biological, adopted, and dependent stepchildren) may qualify for benefits if they meet these requirements: 

  • They are under 18 years old and unmarried.
  • They are under 19 years old and go to secondary school full time.
  • They are disabled and became so before they were 22 years old.

Most of the time, your child stands to be paid up to 50% of your total SSDI monthly benefit. If your child was disabled before age 22, they may be eligible for 100% of your total SSDI monthly benefit.

SSI Recipients 

Unfortunately, your spouse isn’t entitled to any benefit payments with SSI. Your child may be able to get benefits if your family meets the income and asset requirements for SSI (see question 1) and if they are disabled. 

Your child must have severe functional limitations and have been disabled for at least a year. Their condition also needs to be expected to last at least another year. Lastly, your child can’t be working and earning over $1,200 per month. 

Pro tip: Apply for benefits for family members who meet eligibility requirements when you first apply for them to avoid delaying the decision. 

4. How Does the SSA Decide if I Am Disabled? 

Although each case varies, the SSA will generally look at these factors to determine if you are disabled: 

  • Check if you’re performing substantial gainful activity (see question 5)
  • Make sure your impairment is “severe” (see question 6)
  • Determine if your disability satisfies the Blue Book guidelines 
  • Decide if you can perform your past work, and if not: 
  • Determine whether you can do other types of work

5. What Is ‘Substantial Gainful Activity’? 

Substantial gainful activity (SGA) is when a disability claimant is earning more than $1,220 a month ($2,040 for blind claimants). Investments, gifts, and other nonwork sources aren’t included as part of their income.

If the claimant is earning more than the SGA threshold, they will be denied for Social Security disability benefits. 

6. How Does Disability Determination Services Determine if My Disability Is ‘Severe’? 

Disability Determination Services considers a disability severe under these conditions: 

  • The disability claimant can’t work for a minimum of a year, or:
  • The claimant's condition will result in death

7. Can I Qualify for Social Security Disability While Working? 

If you’re earning a small salary and working only a few hours a week, it’s still possible to be approved for disability payments. 

However, if you are working full time and earning more than the SGA threshold ($1,220 a month or $2,040 for blind claimants), you will be denied Social Security disability benefits. 

8. What Happens If I Am Denied the First Time I Apply for Social Security Disability? 

Upon being denied for Social Security disability, you have 60 days from the date you get your determination letter to appeal the decision. Appealing is your best chance of receiving a favorable determination in the future. 

9. Should I Hire a Lawyer for My Application or Appeal? 

Your chances of being granted disability benefits are much higher if you work with a qualified attorney. They can help you gather the right paperwork and speak on your behalf with the SSA about your claim. 

It’s best to hire a lawyer when you first apply, but you can also reach out to one if your application for disability benefits is denied. If you’re appealing your claim, an attorney will see which documents you’re missing and help you get any medical test results or records you need. 

You’ll absolutely want an attorney representing you for your disability hearing (one of the stages of the appeals process). Your lawyer will prepare you for the administrative law judge’s questions and cross-examine the vocational expert who will be at your hearing to advise on other types of work you can do. 

If you’re looking for a lawyer to help you with your Social Security disability benefits application or appeal, get in touch with us today. Our attorneys have decades of experience working hard to win cases for our clients — and we will make this challenging process go as smooth as possible.