SSDI – What Are Work Credits?

Anyone can become temporarily or permanently disabled at any time, so it’s good to know what your options are when it comes to filing a successful claim for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. SSDI benefits could provide helpful income that helps you meet your own needs and those of your family.

Though the application process for SSDI has a reputation for being lengthy and, at times, frustrating, the more you know in advance, the more likely you are to file a successful claim. When it comes to the number of work credits you need to be eligible for SSDI benefits, we have you covered. We’ve gathered all the helpful information you need to make sure you’re on the right path to SSDI benefits eligibility. Let’s take a look.

Frequently Asked Questions About SSDI Work Credits

  • What are SSDI work credits?
  • How many work credits can I earn each year?
  • How many work credits do I need to qualify?
  • What if I have a disability but don’t have enough work credits?
  • What about eligibility for my family members?
  • If I’m “fully insured” what does that mean?
  • Can I purchase more SSDI work credits?
  • How can I check the status of my SSDI work credits?
  • I’m self-employed. How do I earn work credits?

Many times, disabilities that are long-term or permanent can either tremendously reduce or completely negate a person’s ability to perform his or her traditional work duties. When this is the case and a person is deemed eligible for Social Security disability benefits, the Social Security Administration provides a couple of different options to help workers receive the disability income they deserve. Probably the best known is the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which functions in tandem with the Social Security retirement benefit system.

All these programs are provided for under Title II of the Social Security Act to ensure retirement, disability, dependents, and survivors benefits for those who need them and who qualify. Just like the Social Security retirement benefits program, the SSDI program requires workers to have paid into the system at a certain level in order to be eligible to receive any level of Social Security disability benefit.

What Are SSDI Work Credits?

Work credits are earned through SSDI throughout the duration of your working history. Every single year that you earn wages and pay FICA taxes into the Social Security system, you are earning work credits. These credits then help make you eligible to receive Social Security benefits – both SSI and SSDI – plus Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare benefits.

It's important to note that the SSDI program is not a needs-based program – no matter your household income, you’re eligible for SSD benefits if you meet eligibility criteria and have enough work credits.

How Many Work Credits Can I Earn Each Year?

Each year, a given worker can earn a maximum of four work credits. The level you earn is tied directly to your earnings and your work activity. For example, in 2020, a worker must earn $1410 in order to earn one Social Security work credit, or $5640 to earn the maximum of four credits per year. And it doesn’t matter when in the year you earn those credits if they’re achieved within one calendar year.

How Many Work Credits Do I Need to Qualify?

That depends on a few things. The first thing the SSA will consider is the work test, which refers to how many credits you have earned. As a general rule, you should expect to need 20 work credits to qualify for Social Security disability benefits – though, as you’ll find, there are sometimes exceptions to this rule of thumb.

For example, workers under age 31 can often be found eligible for SSD benefits even if they have earned fewer than 20 credits. If you apply for disability benefits between the ages of 24 and 30, you must have worked for half the time between age 21 and the time you became disabled before you can be considered for SSD benefits. And if you become disabled before age 24, you must have worked for at least a year and a half in the three years leading up to your disability – or have accumulated six credits over the most recent three years.

Generally, the older you are, the more work credits you need to be able to qualify for SSDI benefits. See the chart below that outlines how many years/credits you must have in your work history to qualify for SSDI benefits:

Became Disabled At AgeNumber of Credits You NeedNumber of Years of Work
21 through 2761.5
62 or older4010

What if I Have a Disability But Don’t Have Enough Work Credits?

All is not lost. First, work credits apply solely to SSDI benefits – but SSDI benefits aren’t your only option. The SSA administers two different programs designed to help provide disability income. If you have fewer work credits but also suffer from a permanent or long-term disability that you can provide medical evidence for, you may also be eligible for Supplemental Security Income benefits, even if you’ve never earned any work credits.

Since SSI is a need-based program, you will need to show the Social Security Administration that you meet the criteria for limited income and held assets before being able to move forward in the consideration process. But SSI benefits have no work requirements, so whether you have sufficient work credits does not apply for this program.

In some cases, you also may be able to qualify based on a parent’s or a spouse’s work record. For example, widows and widowers ages 50 to 60 who are classified as disabled may be able to receive benefits based on a spouse’s work history. Those who suffer a disability before age 22 may be eligible for SSDI disability benefits because of a parent’s work history.

What About Eligibility For My Family Members?

If you are found eligible for SSDI benefits, then your dependents also will be eligible for dependents benefits through the program. Spouses, minor dependents, and even ex-spouses can be eligible for a monthly benefit. Adult children of those who are eligible for SSDI benefits can receive dependents benefits, even if those adult children have never worked or accumulated any work credits. These family benefits are referred to as auxiliary benefits.

If I’m “Fully Insured” What Does That Mean?

To meet eligibility requirements for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, you must have earned enough work credits throughout your working life. If you’ve earned the maximum number of available credits for your age, your insured status is considered fully insured. In earning those credits, you will have contributed a minimum specific amount into the Social Security system through the FICA taxes deducted from your paycheck to make you eligible for benefits.

Depending on your age, those credits must be earned during a specific period of time. For example, if a younger worker becomes disabled at age 42, she must have earned one credit each calendar year after age 21, plus one credit during the year before she became disabled in order to be considered fully insured. Credits required to be fully insured are capped at 40 for a disabled worker at 62 years old.

Can I Purchase More SSDI Work Credits?

As it turns out, the answer is no. You cannot purchase additional SSDI benefits, you cannot borrow them, and you cannot transfer them from another person. The only way to accumulate additional SSDI work credits is to participate in substantial gainful activity, earn the credits, pay your Social Security tax, and bank those credits in advance.

How Can I Check the Status of My SSDI Work Credits?

Periodically checking your work credits can help you spot errors in any of the SSA’s record-keeping and make sure you get credit for the hours you’re working. The SSA keeps track of the credits you’ve earned through its database, tracking your earnings activity through your Social Security number. You should receive a paper statement mailed to you every five years beginning at age 25 that outlines all your accumulated credits.

Once you reach age 60, you’ll begin receiving a statement every year. In the meantime, you can also check  and open an account, which will allow you access to your statement at any time.

I’m Self-Employed. How Do I Earn Work Credits?

People who own a business or who do freelance work often are still eligible for some level of Social Security benefit. Instead of paying Social Security taxes through payroll deduction like employees of companies, those who are self-employed pay their Social Security taxes to the SSA either as part of their tax return or as part of their estimated taxes due. As long as a self-employed person has worked sufficient years to qualify and as long as she has recently paid employment taxes, she should be eligible for SSDI benefits. And anyone who has earned 40 credits has met the work requirement to receive benefits.

What If My Application is Denied?

Hearing this news can be tough. But if your application is denied during its first submission, don’t lose heart. The denial rate for first-time claims is actually very high. When your application is denied, you begin the appeals process – this is an ideal time to engage a disability lawyer who can help you navigate all the details and intricacies of the appeals process. It’s good to have a knowledgeable advocate on your side. The appeals process can be long and grueling, so it’s good to have someone who can guide you through the process. Your disability claim could be approved at any point in the appeals process.

SSDI Work Credits

Determining whether you meet eligibility requirements for SSDI benefits can be complex and time-consuming – these calculations take into account the age of the worker, the number of credits he’s earned, and the timeframe in which those credits were accumulated. If you think you may qualify but aren’t sure where to start, or if your initial disability claim has been denied, you may want to visit with a Social Security disability attorney. With a knowledgeable team behind you, you can feel confident that you're submitting the right information to be approved for the benefits you need and deserve.

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