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Social Security Disability Benefits

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) can provide crucial financial support to people who become disabled and lose their ability to work.

October 19, 2023
Elderly couple holding hands
Key Takeaways

What is Social Security Disability Insurance?

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a federal program that provides financial support to people who become disabled and lose their ability to work.

If you’ve become disabled, you’ll need money to help pay for your medical and living expenses. Some people buy disability insurance on their own or through their employer, which roughly replaces your take-home pay during the time you’re disabled or until the end of a predefined benefit period. But if you don’t have a separate disability insurance policy, you may qualify for SSDI, and it’s free.

If you qualify for Social Security disability benefits, these are benefits that you’ve earned by working and paying payroll taxes to the Social Security Administration. But it’s notoriously difficult to qualify for SSDI. The vast majority of initial applications are denied, and after all levels of appeal the final acceptance rate has averaged a mere 34%.

Filing for Social Security disability benefits can be overwhelming-the application form alone is seven pages long. And when your health is suffering and you’re trying to manage your day to day life, the Social Security Administration doesn’t exactly make it easy for you.

A Social Security disability lawyer can help you through the process whether you are just applying or appealing a denial, and certain lawyers even specialize in SSDI applications. If you hire an SSDI lawyer, they will communicate with the SSA on your behalf, make sure your application is filled out correctly, and develop a strategy for winning your case.


What is the difference between SSI and Social Security Disability Insurance? They sound similar, but the two programs operate quite differently. 

What is SSDI? 

As noted, SSDI is a form of insurance. Social Security disability benefits are funded through payroll contributions to the Social Security trust fund. And to be eligible for SSDI, you–or a spouse or family member–must have had those contributions deducted from your paychecks under FICA (the Federal Insurance Contributions Act). 

Because Social Security disability benefits are insurance that you paid for and already earned, there are no income limitations or qualifications. For instance, an inheritance does not affect your SSDI benefits. (Note that workers’ compensation benefits can affect your SSDI benefits, though). 

What is SSI, and how is it different from SSDI?

SSI stands for Supplemental Security Income. Unlike SSDI, SSI is a needs-based program that is funded through general tax revenues rather than one’s Social Security contributions. 

SSI eligibility thus does depend on your available income or assets, which is the critical difference for understanding Social Security disability benefits and whether you qualify for SSDI.

How much does a Social Security disability lawyer cost?

Unlike most lawyers, you won’t need to pay your Social Security disability lawyer’s fees out of pocket. SSDI lawyers only get paid if they win your case, and their fees are taken out of your SSDI backpay award (past benefits owed to you, not future payments). If you don’t get awarded Social Security disability benefits, you pay no legal fees.

By law, the maximum fee an SSDI lawyer can charge is 25% of your SSDI backpay award up to a maximum of $6,000. Typically, the award is less than the maximum $6,000 amount.

Here’s an example of how much an SSDI lawyer costs:

SSDI Legal Fee Example graph with pie charts

Do I need an SSDI lawyer?

You are not required to hire a lawyer to apply for Social Security Disability benefits. There are several ways you can apply on your own:

  • You can apply online directly through the Social Security Administration’s website.
  • You can call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
  • You can apply in person at your local Social Security office, though we recommend calling in advance to make an appointment.

There is a clear financial benefit to applying on your own--if your application is successful, you won’t have any legal fees deducted from your award.

But keep in mind that less than ⅓ of SSDI applications are approved, and many fail due to incomplete forms or information. The application process can be overwhelming and confusing. Having a Social Security disability lawyer guide you through the process will increase your chance of success.

Many Social Security disability lawyers offer free consultations, so it may be worth speaking with a few SSDI attorneys and asking them some questions to help you evaluate your options.

Do I qualify for SSDI benefits?

What are the Social Security disability requirements to qualify for benefits? You are eligible to receive SSDI if you are an American citizen or a legal resident. In the application process, you’ll need to prove that your disability may last for at least one year. And often you will also need to prove that you’ve been working for several years and are no longer able to earn an income above a certain threshold.

The Social Security Administration uses a five-point test to determine whether you meet the SSDI definition of disability:

  1. Are you working?
  2. Is your disability “severe”?
  3. Is your disability listed by the SSA or equivalent to a listed disability?
  4. Can you do the work you did before?
  5. Can you do any other work?

Under each of these questions, the SSA evaluates various criteria to determine whether you qualify. (Some people wonder whether you can get disability for specific conditions like anxiety or autism, which we address in separate articles).

How much SSDI will I be paid?

Social Security Disability Insurance is a cash benefit, paid monthly, for the duration of your disability. SSDI also pays disability to your spouse and children, often referred to as SSDI spousal benefits or SSDI dependent benefits.

As of January 2022, the average monthly SSDI benefit is $1,358.50 for disabled workers, with spouses receiving $376.51 and children $428.84, on average as well.

These are averages, of course, so the amount you will actually receive varies depending on your age and other factors.

What is the maximum Social Security disability benefit per month?

The maximum SSDI benefit that you and your family can receive is typically 150% to 180% of the disabled worker’s benefit. 

The Social Security Administration has an online benefits calculator which can help you more accurately estimate how much Social Security disability benefits you are eligible to receive.

What do I do if my SSDI application is denied?

If your Social Security disability benefits claim has been denied, you’re not alone. Most people’s claims are denied--the SSA rejects more than two-thirds of applicants.

Typical reasons for rejection relate to the Social Security disability requirements discussed above, and include:

  • Your disability isn’t expected to last more than a year, or was not considered “severe”
  • You are able to work
  • You failed to provide sufficient medical evidence of your disability or follow your doctor’s orders
  • Your disability was caused by drug or alcohol addiction

You can contest the SSA’s denial of your claim through four different levels of appeal.

Flow chart of SSDI application process

Each step in the Social Security disability benefits appeals process is different.


If your SSDI application is denied, you have 60 days to file for reconsideration. The SSA will have another representative review your application and any new evidence you submit, and determine whether you should in fact be granted benefits.

Administrative law judge hearing

If your reconsideration request is denied, you again have 60 days to notify the SSA that you are appealing the reconsideration decision. You will have to go to court and argue your case before an administrative law judge. This is a real court hearing, and you can bring witnesses including medical and workplace experts. Having a Social Security disability lawyer who has experience with SSDI hearings at this stage to question the witnesses and present your case will be extremely helpful. But it is not required--you can present your own case, or bring a friend to present your case.

Review by the Appeals Council

If your application is denied by the administrative law judge as well, you have 60 days to file an appeal to the SSA’s Appeals Council who will determine whether the judge’s decision was correct. The Appeals Council can make its own decision on whether you qualify for Social Security disability benefits, or it may ask the judge to review your case again.

Lawsuit in federal court

If the Appeals Council also denies your application, your last resort is to file a lawsuit in federal district court. This is a full-blown lawsuit against the current Social Security administrator, which requires filing a complaint, paying court fees, and presenting your case against government lawyers. You will also need to comply with the many court rules or risk having your complaint dismissed. Needless to say, hiring a Social Security disability attorney at this stage can be very beneficial as well.

How long will it take to get my SSDI benefits?

It can take anywhere from three months to over a year to receive your Social Security disability benefits, depending on whether you need to go through the appeals process.

Below is the typical timeline for each stage:

Timeline of the SSDI appeal process

It is often best to apply for SSDI as soon as you become disabled. The application process will take at least three months, so it’s worth getting the ball rolling as early as possible. 

Additionally, there is also a mandatory waiting period of five months after the onset of your disability, but the time is measured from the onset of your disability. In other words, the time that your SSDI application is pending counts towards the waiting period. 

The SSDI application process can be overwhelming, confusing, and lengthy. An SSDI lawyer can help you navigate the process and get you the benefits you’ve earned.