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What’s the Difference Between SSI and SSDI?

Experienced New York disability attorneys explain your rights and options

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are disability programs administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to provide income for individuals who are unable to work and earn a living due to a qualifying medical condition. Although these programs share many similarities, they are distinct and have different criteria and characteristics.

If you’re confused about whether you qualify for SSDI or SSI, our attorneys are here to help. Remember, this article is general information, not legal advice. To learn more and see whether you qualify, contact us for a free consultation.

What is Social Security Disability?

Social Security Disability is a program that provides replacement income for individuals who have previously worked in jobs covered by Social Security and have now become disabled. In addition to having a qualifying medical condition, you typically need to have worked at least five of the last 10 years in jobs covered by Social Security to be eligible for SSDI, although claimants under age 31 may be able to qualify with a shorter work history.

What is Supplemental Security Income?

Supplemental Security Income is a means-tested program, meaning it is designed to support disabled individuals who have limited income and assets. While SSDI is funded through Social Security taxes on employers, SSI is funded by general U.S. Treasury funds. That means SSI is available to anyone who meets the eligibility criteria, whether they have paid into the system or not.

SSI covers people who, for one reason or another, did not work in jobs covered by Social Security. This may include people who have been disabled since a young age, workers in jobs not covered by Social Security or people who were out of the workforce for personal reasons (such as stay-at-home parents). In addition, while SSDI is only for adults who have a qualifying work history, disabled children can qualify for SSI under some circumstances.

What types of disabilities qualify for SSDI and SSI?

One similarity between SSDI and SSI is the definition of disability. For both programs, a qualifying medical condition is one that prevents you from engaging in “substantial gainful activity” (SGA); that is, you are unable to work and earn above a certain threshold of income.

Typically, this means a medical condition or combination of medical conditions that prevent you from engaging in activities critical to paid work, such as sitting, standing, lifting, bending, remembering, and so on. The qualifying medical condition must also be expected to last at least 12 months or to result in death.

As mentioned above, disabled children can also qualify for SSI. For children, a qualifying medical condition is a physical or mental impairment or impairments that result in “marked and severe functional limitations” that seriously affect their day-to-day functioning. Again, the qualifying medical condition must be expected to last at least 12 months or to result in death.

Note that once you are over 65, you no longer need to be disabled to qualify for SSI.

What are the income and asset limits for SSI? What about SSDI?

The key difference between SSI and SSDI is that SSI is limited by your income and assets, while SSDI is not.

To qualify for SSDI, you only need to show that you cannot work and earn a living. Your bank account doesn’t affect your eligibility, nor does passive income, such as investment income. Only your income from employment (or self-employment) must be below the SGA threshold.

For SSI, however, your income from other disability benefits, unemployment, pensions, and other sources can affect your eligibility and/or reduce your monthly benefit amount. SSI also takes into account “in-kind income,” which is food and/or shelter you receive for free or for less than fair market value. Only a few types of income are excluded from SSI, including SNAP benefits, income tax refunds, and some types of state and local government benefits.

You also cannot have significant assets: your resources cannot be more than $2,000 (for an individual) or $3,000 (for a couple). “Resources” include your cash, bank accounts, stocks, mutual funds, savings bonds, and any property you could sell for cash and use to pay for food and shelter. It doesn’t include your home (and the land it is on), one vehicle if needed for transportation, and household goods or personal effects.

How are SSDI and SSI benefits calculated?

Another key difference between SSDI and SSI is the amount of monthly benefits you can receive.

SSDI benefits are calculated based on your “averaged indexed monthly earnings” (AIME), which is essentially the average you earned monthly during your years of employment. There are adjustments that can be made to exclude the years when your work was limited due to your medical condition. Based on your AIME, the Social Security Administration uses a formula to compute your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), which is your monthly benefit. This formula changes every year depending on the national average wage index.

SSI benefits, meanwhile, start with the maximum federal benefit rate, which is $943 per month in 2024. The Social Security Administration then subtracts your countable income from this amount to reach your full benefit. Your first $20 in income doesn’t count for these purposes. If you have earnings from work (such as wages from an employer), the SSA subtracts $1 from your benefit for every $2 you earn. For other income, such as pensions or unemployment insurance, the SSA subtracts $1 for every $1 you receive.

Can you get SSDI and SSI at the same time?

Yes, if you qualify for both programs, you can apply for and receive SSI and SSDI benefits at the same time. The Social Security Administration calls these “concurrent” benefits.

However, your SSDI benefits are considered countable income for SSI purposes. That means that for every dollar you receive in SSDI benefits, your SSI benefits are reduced by the same amount. So, the total benefits you receive will be much less than the sum of what you could qualify for in each program individually.

Still, there are several reasons why you might want to apply for both SSDI and SSI. First, your first $20 in income, including SSDI income, doesn’t count for purposes of reducing your SSI, so if nothing else, you can get $20 per month more from concurrent benefits than you could get from SSI alone.

Second, SSI benefits are retroactive to the month you applied, whereas SSDI only kicks in after five months of disability. SSI will cover you for that intervening period.

Finally, being on SSDI and SSI can guarantee your eligibility for other government benefits, such as Medicare and Medicaid, so if you are a recipient of both SSDI and SSI, you will have access to the maximum amount of other benefits.

How can a disability attorney help me with SSI and SSDI?

Applying for Social Security benefits is a complex and often confusing process. There are legal standards that must be met and strict deadlines that can force you to start the whole process over again. An experienced attorney who understands the process can keep your claim moving forward and keep you informed about your progress. An attorney can also represent your rights in reconsideration, hearings, and appeals if your initial application is denied.

If you need help applying for SSI or SSDI benefits, you’ve come to the right place. Contact the experienced disability attorneys at Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano LLP for a free consultation.

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