If you are disabled and unable to work, you may benefit from the Social Security Disability Insurance program, or SSDI. Disability eligibility must be earned through work credits, which you accumulate by paying Social Security taxes. If you are not eligible for disability, you may still draw Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. In some cases, if you qualify for disability but have only a small monthly benefit, you may also draw simultaneously from SSI.
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Applications and Appeals
Both SSDI and SSI are benefit programs for the disabled. You apply by filing paperwork with the Social Security Administration, which then sends your application to a disability determination service administered by your state. You must submit medical information and may have to attend a medical examination. If you are denied benefits, you have the right to appeal; in most states, after two denials you can request a hearing. The SSI program is means-tested, meaning your income and other resources are counted for eligibility.
If you are approved for disability, your monthly benefit depends on your earnings record. The more you have earned, the higher your benefit. The calculation is the same that Social Security uses for retirement benefits, although the monthly benefit amount is usually smaller, since in most cases disability applicants have worked fewer years than retirees. Social Security will review your medical records every few years to ensure that you remain qualified for disability benefits.
SSI and Unearned Income
If you are entitled to a disability benefit of only a few hundred dollars a month, you may also be eligible to receive SSI benefits. Social Security will count your full disability benefit -- which is "unearned income" -- against the SSI limit, less a $20 exemption. For 2013, that limit stood at $710 monthly. If your disability payment is only $200, and that is your only source of income, then SSI will kick in for the remaining unearned income available: $530 a month, including the exemption. If you earn more than $710 in monthly disability, you will not qualify for any SSI payments.
Earned Income and Retirement
If you draw SSI benefits, Social Security will review your finances every few months to ensure you are not exceeding the income limits. If you begin earning money from a part-time job, for example, that income will be counted against your income limit, and your SSI benefit will be adjusted downward. In the meantime, your SSDI benefit remains the same, with only cost-of-living adjustments added once a year. The disability stops when you reach full retirement age, at which point Social Security converts it to a retirement benefit. If you still meet the SSI income guidelines, you will continue receiving the adjusted SSI benefit.