Last updated on August 8th, 2023
You probably know that some of the taxes taken out of your paycheck are for Social Security and Medicare. Still, most people don’t fully understand how Social Security benefits–including disability benefits–are earned. Eligibility for Social Security and SSDI benefits is determined not based on the amount you paid in FICA and Medicare taxes but on the number of work credits you accrued across your working life.
The work credit calculation for Social Security disability benefits is more complicated than the calculation for retirement benefits. To qualify for Social Security retirement benefits, you must have accrued 40 work credits across your working life.
A fixed amount of earnings equals one work credit. In 2023, that number is $1,640 per work credit. But, you can only earn four work credits per year. So, if you earned $3,280 in 2023, you would have earned two work credits. If you earned $6,560, you earned four work credits. But, if you earned $20,000 or $50,000, or $96,572 in 2023, you still earned four work credits. As a practical matter, that means you must have worked in at least 10 different years across your career to collect the required 40 work credits.
If you don’t have sufficient work credits, you don’t qualify for Social Security retirement benefits. The same is true for Social Security disability benefits. But, for SSDI, the number of work credits varies depending on your age. And, some of those work credits must have been recent.
For SSDI eligibility, the disabled worker must meet two separate work credit tests.
The work duration test is based on the counting of work credits earned across your career, just like the count for retirement benefit eligibility. But, obviously, the Social Security Administration can’t require 40 work credits for every disability applicant. That would automatically disqualify some disabled workers simply because they weren’t old enough to have accrued 40 work credits, or because they went to college before entering the working world. So, younger workers need fewer work credits to qualify for SSDI.
The youngest workers–those who become disabled before they reach the age of 24–need just six work credits. If earnings were sufficient, those credits could be accrued working in just two calendar years.
The number of credits increases gradually with the age at which the worker becomes disabled. For example, a 31-year-old worker applying for SSDI will typically need 20 work credits. On the other hand, a worker who reached the age of 59 before becoming disabled would need 38.
But, the number of work credits isn’t the whole equation.
For retirement benefits purposes, it doesn’t matter when the 40 work credits were accrued. For example, someone might graduate from high school, work for 15 years, then become a stay-at-home parent and opt not to return to work when the kids get older. A worker in that situation might never accrue another work credit after the age of 33. Still, when retirement age rolled around, they would still be eligible for Social Security benefits.
That’s not true for SSDI applicants. In addition to the raw number of work credits acquired, a Social Security disability applicant must also have a certain number of recent work credits. The number of credits required and what is considered “recent” also varies with the age of the worker.
We’ve already established that a worker who becomes disabled before the age of 24 needs just six work credits. But, the recent work test requires that those credits have been earned within the three years leading up to the disability. Here’s how two young disabled workers with the same number of work credits could be treated very differently.
Imagine that David and Mark are in a motor vehicle accident together on December 1, 2022. They both become disabled as a result of the accident. The two men are both 23 years old, and both are disabled from the moment of the collision.
David and Mark each have eight work credits–more than the six required based on the age when they became disabled. However, they have followed different paths.
David went to community college right after high school and did not work while he was in school. He didn’t start working until he graduated shortly after his 21st birthday. He then worked for just over two years, accruing those eight work credits. He was still employed in that position on the day of the accident. David has more than the required six work credits, and he has earned all of them within the past three years, so he is eligible (at least, as far as the work credit requirement) for SSDI.
Mark followed a path that was nearly the exact opposite of David’s. He started working as soon as he graduated from high school, and worked for just over two years. He also accrued eight work credits. But, after working for two years, Mark decided to go back to school. A mix of financial aid, help from his family, and student loans allowed him to focus on school and not work. He was three years into a four-year degree when he was disabled in a car crash. Though Mark is the same age as David and has the same number of work credits, none of his work credits were accrued in the three years leading up to his disability. So, he is not eligible for SSDI.
Work credits are just one aspect of the SSDI application process, but they provide a good illustration of just how complex the process can be. Most disability applications are denied at first, and navigating the reconsideration and appeals process can take two years or more. Whether you’re just starting the application process or have been denied and are fighting for your benefits, an experienced Social Security disability lawyer can be your best resource.
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