Social Security Law Basics

The Basics of Social Security 101

What is Social Security Law?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law before World War II. The idea was initially to help the less fortunate to have a chance to retire and not work into their old age. The program has grown exponentially since.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) runs the program, and now covers a variety of issues. Most notably, the federal government pays you a certain amount of money monthly if you meet the established criteria for either supplemental income or disability income. The type of benefits you receive depend on several factors. At the outset, you should understand that this is a highly complicated area of the law. The regulations are voluminous. Therefore, you should talk to a well-qualified social security lawyer who can help you navigate the complex web of laws to get you the benefits you deserve.

What Types of Assistance are Available for People Who Cannot Work Full Time?

The SSA oversees two benefits programs that help people who cannot work. The first program is called Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. The SSI program gives money to older people who have very little money and cannot work. It also provides income for people with disabilities who cannot work and have not paid into the social security system.

Typically, SSI works in conjunction with state assistance programs. Those programs can include Medicare and Medicaid, housing vouchers, SNAP benefits, and other programs designed to aid the disadvantaged.

The other program the SSA manages is called Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). The program was designed to help disabled people who cannot work because of a disability. Unlike SSI, you must pay into the social security system to qualify for SSDI benefits. However, there is an exception. You might qualify if your spouse or parent paid into the system and does not utilize them. You might be able to transfer those benefits to you.

What is the Difference Between SSI and SSDI?

Receiving SSDI benefits is more advantageous than SSI. However, whether you can receive SSDI benefits hinges on how much you have paid into the system and the nature of your disability. Not every person who cannot work because of a medical problem qualifies for SSDI, as we will see.

SSI is available to people of limited means and resources at a certain age or are disabled and have never worked. Most people who cannot work qualify for SSI benefits. Enrolling in SSI also means you qualify for Medicare and Medicaid. Surprisingly, SSDI recipients must wait two years before joining Medicare. However, people diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) are automatically enrolled

Qualifying for SSDI

How Do You Qualify?

You must meet the criteria to qualify for SSDI. Those two criteria include having employment covered by Social Security and meeting the strict definition of disability under the Social Security Act.

How Much Time Do You Need to Work?

The SSA counts your Social Security credits. Your work credits are based on your annual wages or your reported self-employment income. The SSA allows you to earn up to four credits each year, or one credit for every quarter. Under the current guidelines, you earn one credit for every $1,510 you earn up to $6,040 for the year.

That’s only part of the equation. Next you must have enough work credits to qualify. That depends on the age you apply for benefits. The program requires you to have 40 credits altogether, and you must earn 20 of the credits in the last 10 years. Younger workers do not need to acquire 40 credits to qualify for SSDI.

What is a Disability?

You cannot receive SSDI for a short-term disability or a partial disability. You can only receive benefits if you are totally disabled. Having a total disability means that you:

  • Cannot work or engage in a substantial gainful activity (SGA) because of your medical condition,
  • Are unable to work at the job you had or adjust to another job because of your disability, and
  • Have a condition that has lasted for one year or is expected to last for one year or have a condition that could cause your death.


You need to look to other income sources if you have a short-term or partial disability.

How Do You Know if Your Disability Qualifies?

The SSA examines three qualifications to determine if you have a qualifying disability.

The first is your current employment situation. Are you still working? If so and you make more than $1,350 per month on average, then you do not have a qualifying disability. Conversely, if you cannot work or have a job that does not meet the definition of SGA, then the SSA will designate their office of Disability Determination Services (DDS) to see if you qualify for SSDI benefits.

The DDS will assist if you have a severe condition. A severe condition must substantially interfere with your basic work-related tasks for at least 12 months. If it does, then the DDS will want to know if you have one of their qualifying disabling conditions. You can obtain benefits if your condition is on the list. You may also qualify for benefits if your condition is as serious as those listed.

Then the DDS wants to know if you can still work or perform any of the work you had in the past. If not, then you do not qualify for benefits. If you do, then the DDS wants to know if you can do any other type of work, despite your impairment. You can get benefits if you cannot perform any other type of work.

Qualifying for SSI

The criteria for eligibility for SSI benefits include:

  • Being 65 or older,
  • Blindness or low vision,
  • Are a Disabled child under 18, or
  • Are a Disabled adult.


Those are the initial qualifications. If you meet any of then initial qualifications, then you must satisfy the following:

  • Have limited income,
  • Have limited resources,
  • Are a US citizen or an alien belonging to a certain category, and
  • Are not institutionalized or have an active warrant.


You must also live in any of the 50 states or the District of Columbia.

What is a Qualifying Disability?

A qualifying disability is any medically ascertainable condition that prevents the applicant from performing any SGA, and the medical condition results in death or lasts or is expected to last for a year or longer. The SSA also allows for Compassionate Allowances in situations that involve cancer, brain disorders, and rare disorders in children.

What Does it Mean to Have Limited Income and Resources?

The SSA will ask you to account for all your income from whatever source. That includes work, other sources like worker’s compensation, VA benefits, and government programs. The SSA might also count money that you receive from family and friends too.

The SSA will inquire about some of the property you own. They will want to know if you have cash on hand, own real estate, have any bank accounts, stocks, bonds, own any cars, have any life insurance policies, and any other items you could sell to make ends meet.

The threshold amount for limited resources is low. It is only $2,000 for an individual or child and $3,000 limit for couples.

You also must be a citizen of the U.S. or have a qualifying condition that allows aliens to acquire SSI benefits.

Who Does Not Qualify for SSI?

You cannot get SSI benefits if you have an active felony or arrest warrant. The SSI will stop your payments if you have an active warrant. Payments will resume once you prove to the SSA that you have cleared up your warrant. Additionally, you cannot receive any benefits if you are imprisoned or jailed. However, SSI regulations allow incarcerated people to apply for benefits before wrapping up their prison sentence.

You should also be aware that the SSA will disqualify you if you give property away just so you could qualify for the program. You could lose eligibility for up to three years.

Finally, you cannot leave the country for longer than 30 days consecutively. You will lose your benefits if you do.

How to Appeal Denial of Benefits

The Social Security act allows you to file an appeal within 60 days after you receive notice that the SSA denied your claim. Appealing the decision means that you want a higher authority to review the agency’s decision.

There are four levels of appeal. The first is asking the SSA to reconsider its decision. You should add more information to your claim if you are asking for reconsideration, if possible. Doing so will strengthen your petition. If that fails, or if you do not want to pursue that step, then you can ask for review by an administrative law judge. An administrative law judge will decide your case after reviewing your filings. If you think the administrative law judge made a mistake, then you can file an appeal with the SSA appeals council. You have exhausted all your administrative remedies at that point. Only then can you file a case in federal court to ask a federal judge to review your claim.

Consider Hiring an Attorney

Having a skilled and experienced SSI/SSDI represent you is a good idea if you want to appeal the denial of your claim. This is a highly technical area of the law. You could forfeit valuable rights if you are not careful or understand the law thoroughly.

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