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SSI vs. SSDI: A Guide to Social Security Disability

Hunter Kuffel, CEPF®
Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) often get lumped together or confused for each other, despite being two distinct government programs. This is understandable: They are both government disability assistance programs with very similar acronyms.

That said, the two programs have some key differences, including the requirements for eligibility. If you’re experiencing a disability (be it temporary or permanent), you’ll want to know how each program functions.

What Is SSI?

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a government program funded by taxes that provides financial assistance to disabled, elderly or blind people with low or limited income. Eligibility for SSI is based strictly on your income. Your work history has nothing to do with it.

Determining if your income is low enough to receive SSI can get a bit complex, since not all income counts toward the limit. In broad terms, you are eligible if your qualifying income is at or below the Federal Benefit Rate (FBR), which is currently $771 for individuals and $1,157 for couples. You also have to have less than $2,000 ($3,000 for couples) in assets that can be quickly converted to cash to qualify.

You can apply for SSI easily through the Social Security website. You’ll need your Social Security Number (SSN), your doctor’s name and contact information, information about medication and medical test results and your most recent W-2 form . If you’re married, you’ll also need proof of that marriage.

What Is SSDI?

ssi vs ssdi

The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program provides cash assistance to workers who are disabled or blind but have contributed enough to the Social Security trust fund to qualify. You’ll need a set amount of work history to qualify, and the amount depends upon your age.

For workers under 24, the program requires at least 1.5 years of contribution during the three years prior to disability. For workers over 30, that threshold is five years during the prior 10. If you’re age 24 through 30, you need to have worked at least half of the time between your 21st birthday and the quarter during which you became disabled. In addition to your recent work history, the SSA looks at your total career, requiring a total contribution duration between 1.5 and 9.5 years depending on your age.

If you’re still able to work with your disability, you may still be eligible for SSDI, but your income must be below the program’s limit after you’ve deducted any disability-related expenses. This limit is also known as the threshold for Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA). In 2019, the SGA threshold is $1,220 for non-blind individuals and $2,040 for blind individuals.

What the Programs Have in Common

Both SSI and SSDI are government assistance programs that provide cash assistance to people with disabilities. They can both be a big help to people struggling to pay medical and other bills . That’s why it’s understandable that many confuse them for each other. Both programs use the same five-step criteria to determine if you qualify as disabled. The programs ask five questions to determine your eligibility:

  • Are you working?
  • Is your condition “severe” (limiting your ability to do basic work for at least 12 months)?
  • Is your condition on the list of disabling conditions?
  • Can you do the work you did previously?
  • If not, can you do any other type of work?

Although the requirements differ, both programs have additional eligibility requirements that can be somewhat complex. Both also look at your income as one factor in determining your eligibility.

How the Programs Differ

ssi vs ssdi

Eligibility

The biggest difference between the two programs is that SSDI eligibility is dependent in part on your work history. SSI eligibility is not. When you are deciding whether you should apply for either program or both, your past contributions to the Social Security trust fund will only matter for SSDI.

Another difference in eligibility requirements is that children are eligible for SSI, but not for SSDI. However, if you are eligible for SSDI, your dependents may also be eligible for benefits through you.

Benefit Amounts

For 2019, the maximum monthly benefit amounts for SSI are the same as the income cutoffs: $771 for individuals and $1,157 for couples. Every dollar of monthly countable income you earn subtracts from that benefit amount. Once you earn beyond those limits, you are no longer eligible.

SSDI benefits are based on your work history and average lifetime earnings. As such, it’s harder to pin down how much you can expect to receive in benefits. Broadly speaking, the SSA will look at all of your qualifying income from the beginning of your work history to when you became disabled and calculate your average indexed monthly earnings (AIME). Then, it will apply a formula to come up with your benefit amount, which maxes out at $1,234 a month in 2019.

Funding

There are also a few differences in how the programs are administered and funded. SSI provides health coverage through Medicaid, while SSDI does so through Medicare . Also, some states provide their own supplement to SSI benefits, but no states do so for SSDI benefits.

The two programs also differ in their funding source. The Social Security Disability trust fund funds SSDI, whereas general tax revenue funds SSI.

Can You Be Eligible for SSI and SSDI?

Yes, you can eligible for both programs at once. If your income and assets are low enough and you have the necessary work history, you could potentially qualify for benefits from both programs. There’s even a name for applying for both SSI and SSDI at the same time: The Social Security Administration (SSA) calls it making a concurrent claim.

There is one tricky thing about receiving both benefits. Any money you receive from SSDI will count toward the income limit for SSI. So, if you receive too much from SSDI, that may disqualify you from SSI benefits.

The Takeaway

SSI and SSDI are both government-run disability assistance programs, but they’re intended to help different groups of people. SSI is for individuals who are elderly, blind or disabled and who have very low incomes; eligibility is not dependent on their work history. SSDI, on the other hand, is for workers who become disabled after having contributed to the fund for long enough to earn benefits.

While it’s true that the same person can be eligible for both programs, one is strictly work-based and the other is not.

Tips For Navigating Social Security

  • Nailing down a sturdy financial plan with a financial advisor can help you feel prepared for anything life throws your way. SmartAsset’s free advisor matching tool can pair you with up to three qualified advisors in your area. Just answer some questions about your financial situation and goals, and the tool will connect you with an expert who can help set you on the right financial path.
  • If you’re applying for Social Security disability benefits, you’ll need to fill out form SSA-827 . This provides your consent for the SSA and Disability Determination Services (DDS) to view your medical records.
  • Dealing with a disability, either temporary or permanent, is hard enough without considering the financial impact. Having an emergency fund in place for unpredictable things like this can be a huge relief.

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