All employees pay in to the Social Security system through a payroll tax levied on their earnings. The employer matches these contributions and submits the payments to the Social Security Administration. Self-employed individuals contribute to the system through the self-employment taxes they pay with their federal tax return.
Paying Social Security taxes enrolls you in the disability insurance program automatically. There are no eligibility requirements other than a minimum number of work credits needed, depending on your age. A work credit is earned with each $1,120 of your income, and Social Security grants you up to four credits a year. Children under the age of 18 are not eligible for Social Security disability.
From age 18 to 24, workers must work roughly 18 months to be eligible for disability. From 24 up to age 31, workers must have worked roughly half of the time since they turned 18 years of age to have sufficient work credits for disability insurance. After age 31, the number of years of work needed for eligibility gradually rises, and averages about five out of the past 10 years.
If you file for Social Security disability, the Social Security Administration will first determine your eligibility. If you have not paid in to the system, or have insufficient work credits, you will be denied for disability on that basis. In a fairly short time, you will receive a denial letter from Social Security explaining their findings. This decision cannot be appealed unless you can prove you have paid sufficient Social Security taxes and their records are in error. Otherwise, to be eligible you will have to return to work to pay in a sufficient amount and then reapply.
People who are not eligible for disability benefits may still apply for Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. This program is open to people who have not paid Social Security taxes, who are medically disabled and cannot work, and who are means tested, meaning Social Security imposes a limit on their assets and household income. The limits vary with your marital status.