The Social Security Act, in its current form, establishes several major benefit programs to provide money benefits to people who are too disabled to work. The purpose of this post is to talk about two of those programs, Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplement Security Income - how they are different, how they are the same, and who might be eligible for each.
1. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
One of the programs established the Social Security Act and administered by the Social Security Administration is Social Security Disability Insurance, usually abbreviated to SSDI. SSDI benefits are also known as Disability Insurance Benefits and Title II Benefits. Eligibility for SSDI benefits is determined by a person’s “insured status,” which is directly related to that person’s work history. There is no maximum or minimum income or asset requirement. To be insured for purposes of SSDI, a person must be “fully insured,” and “disability insured.” There are a number of laws and regulations about what makes a person “fully insured” and “disability insured” depending on your date of birth, and you may want to talk to an attorney to make sure you meet these criteria. In short, to be “fully insured,” a person must have worked, and paid social security taxes, over a substantial period of their adult life. To be “disability insured,” a person must have contributed to the program, through the same taxes, sufficiently recently before becoming disabled.
If a claimant becomes disabled under the Social Security Act before their “date last insured,” (and is below the retirement age) they are generally entitled to receive SSDI benefits. The amount of a person’s SSDI benefit depends on their work history and earnings – the more a person paid in taxes while they were working, the higher the benefit.
2. Supplement Security Income (SSI)
The other major benefit program is Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Unlike SSDI, SSI is a needs-based or income-based program, meaning that a person becomes eligible based on their household income and assets, instead of their work history. SSI is designed to provide for very basic needs, such as shelter and food, for those people who are disabled, blind or exceed the retirement age and have very few assets and little to no income. The Social Security Administration has specific rules and exceptions for what counts as income and assets or resources. There are specific formulas dealing with the income limit. Generally, a person will not qualify for SSI benefits if they are single and have resources (i.e. bank accounts, investments, etc.) exceeding $2,000 or if they are married with resources exceeding $3,000 for the couple.
The amount of the SSI benefit varies by state because some states supplement the benefit amount. The amount of any SSI benefit is generally considerable lower than the amount of an SSDI benefit because SSI is only intended to cover basic needs. SSI benefits may be offset by other sources of income, including spousal income. In certain circumstances, a person can receive both SSDI and SSI benefits simultaneously, so long as the SSDI benefits do not exceed the income limit or completely offset the SSI benefit payment.
There are several things that are shared by the SSDI benefit and SSI benefit programs. Both are administered by the Social Security Administration. Applying for both programs is very similar, and they share the same levels of appeal and rules regarding judicial review. Most importantly, the definition of “disabled” is identical for both programs – it is any person who has a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment which,” prevents that person from engaging in any “substantially gainful activity” in the economy and is either expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.
This post is a general overview of the similarities and differences between two social security programs. Each program and its procedures are subject to many laws and regulations. Talking to an attorney who practices in this area can be helpful in determining whether you might qualify for a social security program and how to go about claiming your benefits.
 There are also a number of programs which provide benefits to dependents, but these programs are outside the scope of this post.