Benefits for People With Disabilities: How to Qualify

You might qualify for Supplemental Security Income, Medicare, Social Security Disability Insurance or VA benefits.
Roberta Pescow
By Roberta Pescow 
Published
Edited by Claire Tsosie

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If you have a disability, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Medicare or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSDI recipients may also qualify for SSI. Disabled veterans may qualify for benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, SSDI and SSI at the same time.

SSDI

You might be eligible for SSDI if you meet strict medical and work requirements and have paid into Social Security. Usually, you can only qualify if your disability has prevented you from working for a year or more

Social Security Administration. Disability Benefits | How You Qualify. Accessed Aug 4, 2023.
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But qualifying for these benefits can be difficult. An average of only 21% of initial claims from disabled workers were approved between 2010 and 2019

Social Security Administration. Outcomes of Applications for Disability Benefits. Accessed Aug 8, 2023.
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What it pays: SSDI benefit amounts are determined by a detailed formula based on how much you earned during your working years. The average SSDI monthly benefit amount was about $1,690 in June 2023, according to the SSA

Social Security Administration. Disabled worker average benefits. Accessed Aug 3, 2023.
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How to apply: You can apply on the SSA website. Note that this process is time-consuming and requires extensive supporting medical and work documentation. After applying, you'll have to wait months for a decision, and appealing a denial takes longer.

Getting an experienced disability lawyer can help you make a strong case or file an appeal after a denial. Disability lawyers are required by law to work on contingency, meaning they don't get paid until you win your claim. Their fees are also capped at $7,200 or 25% of your back pay, whichever is less

Social Security Administration. Fee Agreements. Accessed Aug 4, 2023.
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Medicare

Receiving SSDI makes you eligible for Medicare. There are a few exceptions, but typically, a 24-month waiting period for Medicare starts when you first receive SSDI

SSA.gov. Medicare Information. Accessed Oct 16, 2023.
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Medicare is a federal health insurance program for those 65 and older and those with disabilities and end-stage renal disease. The program covers hospital care (Part A), medical care (Part B) and prescription drugs (Part D).

Can you get Medicaid automatically?

Can you get Medicare under age 65 automatically?

If you receive SSI…

Yes, in most states. In others, you need to sign up separately.

No, but you'll be eligible to receive it automatically if you get SSDI.

If you receive SSDI…

No, but you might be eligible for it.

Yes, after a 24-month waiting period.*

If you receive VA disability…

No, but you might be eligible for it in addition to VA benefits.

No, but you'll be eligible to receive it automatically if you get SSDI.

*There's no waiting period if you have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. For end-stage renal disease, Medicare coverage can start in the first month of dialysis if certain requirements are met.

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SSI

SSI pays benefits to adults and children with disabilities, as well as people over 65 who aren’t disabled but who have limited income and resources. There are no work requirements.

Benefit amounts are determined by whether you’re a qualified individual, couple or essential person, and whether you have income that reduces your benefit amount. Cost-of-living adjustments are also factored in.

What it pays: The 2024 maximum monthly SSI benefit amount is $943 for an eligible individual, $1,415 for an eligible individual with an eligible spouse and $472 for an eligible essential person

Social Security Administration. SSI Federal Payment Amounts For 2023. Accessed Aug 4, 2023.
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How to apply: You can start the SSI application online by providing your name, Social Security number and basic contact information, which the SSA estimates to take five to 10 minutes. After that, the SSA will send you an appointment date and time by mail within 14 business days to complete the process in person.

VA disability benefits

You might qualify for VA disability benefits if your injury or illness — or the worsening of your condition — is from military service. The VA assigns “disability ratings” to applicants in the form of a percentage to indicate severity; for example, someone with a 50% disability would be more disabled and eligible for more benefits than someone with a 10% disability.

What it pays: For veterans with 10% or 20% disabilities, the 2024 maximum monthly benefit amounts are $171.23 and $338.49 respectively, with no increases for dependents

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 2023 Veterans disability compensation rates. Accessed Aug 8, 2023.
. Rates for more severe disabilities are higher, starting at $524.31 for a veteran with a 30% disability and no dependents to $4,433.39 for a veteran with 100% disability, one child, a spouse and two parents. There are also increases for each additional child or a spouse receiving aid and attendance.

How to apply: You can apply on the VA website. You'll need to provide supporting medical documentation and supporting statements from family, friends or those familiar with your condition. Lawyers and other people who might help you apply aren't permitted to charge fees for filing initial VA disability claims.

If your claim is denied, consider hiring an experienced VA-accredited disability lawyer to help you with your appeal. For these cases, lawyers are paid on contingency, and generally, fees should not exceed 20% of your back pay. Fees over 33.33% are considered unreasonable under the law

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Claire Tsosie, an assigning editor at NerdWallet, contributed reporting to this article.

Frequently asked questions

You may be able to work while receiving these benefits. However, the amount you’re allowed to earn over time is limited. The SSA’s Ticket to Work program even offers free vocational rehab, training and job referrals. For questions about Ticket to Work and income limits, call the SSA at 866-968-7842 (TTY number, 866-833-2967) Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Eastern time. The SSA gives you a nine-month trial work period during which you’ll continue to receive your full benefit, regardless of how much you earn.

With a few exceptions, the law doesn’t allow you to receive a Social Security retirement benefit in addition to your Social Security disability benefit. If you’re already receiving Social Security disability benefits, these will automatically convert to retirement benefits when you reach full retirement age.

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