That depends on your age when you become disabled. People younger than 24 years old may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) with as little as a year and a half of work under their belts, but the threshold rises with age.
As with retirement benefits, qualification for SSDI is measured in Social Security credits. You acquire credits for paying Social Security taxes on your work income. In 2021, you get one credit for each $1,470 you earn in such “covered” employment (or self-employment), up to a maximum of four credits per year (for $5,880 or more in earnings). The credit amount is automatically adjusted annually to reflect national wage trends.
For retirement benefits, the equation is simple: You qualify at 40 credits, or 10 years of working and paying Social Security taxes. While the 10 years don't have to be consecutive, most workers reach that baseline well before they turn 62, the minimum age to draw retirement benefits.
But disability — defined as a medical condition severe enough to prevent you from working for at least a year or likely to result in death — can strike at any age. In recognition of that, Social Security developed a sliding scale for SSDI. To be “insured,” as Social Security calls people who meet the work requirements to get benefits, you must meet two age- and employment-related qualifications.
The recent work test
First, you must have worked at least semiregularly in the period leading up to your disability. This requirement changes with age:
- If you become disabled in or before the calendar quarter in which you turn 24, you must have earned at least six credits (equivalent to a year and a half of work) in the prior three years to pass the recent work test.
- Between the ages of 24 and 31, you must have spent at least half the time since turning 21 in covered work. For example, if you became disabled in the quarter when you turned 29, you will need to have earned 16 credits (worked four years) in the previous eight years.
- Beyond age 31, the test is five years (20 credits) of work in the decade immediately before you became disabled.
The duration of work test
In addition to satisfying the recent work requirement, you must have collected a certain number of credits over your whole working life to qualify for SSDI.
If you are younger than 28, the duration test is six credits, or a year and a half of work. After that, it roughly follows a formula: You must have at least as many credits as the number of years since you turned 22.
So if you become disabled at 30, you need to have worked for at least 2 years total (eight credits). At 40, it's 4.5 years (18 credits); at 50, 7 years (28 credits); at 60, 9.5 years (38 credits).
Once you have 40 credits, you pass the duration test no matter your age. But in most cases, you still must have done some of that work in recent years to get SSDI.
Neither test applies to Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the other disability benefit administered by Social Security. SSI is a needs-based benefit that is not funded by Social Security taxes. You can qualify for it as a disabled person regardless of your work history, if you meet the medical criteria and have limited income and assets.
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Keep in mind
- Your work history is only one qualifying factor for SSDI. You still must demonstrate, through extensive medical evidence, that your condition genuinely prevents you from doing most paying work.
- The recent work test applies to the period before you became disabled, which may predate your application for benefits. A lengthy period without working might not disqualify you from SSDI if, for example, Social Security determines your disability began years ago and you were working regularly prior to that.
- If you are legally blind, you need to satisfy only the duration of work test. There is no requirement to have worked recently.
Published August 11, 2021