Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) are available to those who have maintained a disability-insured status through Social Security at least through the date that their disability began. To gain disability-insured status, you have to have earned enough work credits. These work credits correspond to four “quarters of coverage” for each year.
"Quarters of Coverage" Explained
If you have at least 20 quarters of coverage in the past 10 years, then you have disability-insured status. Since there are four quarters in a year, the 20 quarters of coverage work out to 5 years of work. However, a quarter of coverage is not always tied to the four quarters of the year—instead, it’s typically equivalent to an amount of income adjusted annually based on a formula that Social Security uses.
In 2021, a quarter of coverage is $1,470. Therefore, you could earn the four quarters of coverage without having worked throughout the year. However, you will never earn more than four quarters of coverage in any year. And of course, only reported income with FICA payroll taxes withheld would apply toward earning work credits.
There are exceptions to the above. For instance, if you’re between ages 24 and 31, you may be covered if you have worked at least half of the time between age 21 and the time you became disabled. Furthermore, if you are an adult under age 24, you may be covered if you have 6 credits earned in the last 3 years. And there are separate rules for assessing whether a “statutorily blind” worker is insured (it’s normally easier to establish).
Maximize Your Benefits: Don't Delay Treatment and Diagnosis
It is not uncommon for someone to stop working for a variety of reasons and only think of applying for disability years later when their condition worsens. This can be problematic for anyone hoping to draw DIB based on their own work record. Especially where they might not have sought much treatment until later on, it can be difficult to document that their condition was severe enough when they stopped working to show that they were disabled then. Since disability-insured status is based on your status in the last ten years, this can unfortunately mean that by delaying action and trying to avoid drawing benefits that someone might initially see as “unnecessary,” the individual can create a scenario where they are no longer eligible for DIB and cannot clearly document that they were disabled as Social Security defines the term within the period in which they were eligible.
It’s easy to understand the inaction. What if you left work for a variety of reasons—perhaps you were no longer able to work or were rapidly approaching a point where you couldn’t work anymore but you specifically quit your job to help care for a family member for a while? It’s also difficult to admit that a disability has reached the point where you can no longer work anymore; it might seem more sensible and respectable to wait and see. However, that inaction can be very harmful to you, especially if you are ultimately unable to return to work. While a “disability” for purposes of Social Security has to at least be expected to last for 12 months, there is no requirement that it last forever. You could apply for and receive DIB for perhaps a few years while you pursue treatment and attempt to return to the workforce. Social Security even has rules related specifically to a trial work period so that people can later attempt to return to the workforce and drop back out if they’re not quite ready. Therefore, if you believe that you can no longer work, there are good reasons not to wait—especially for years and years—before applying for benefits. If you find yourself in this situation, it would be beneficial to speak with an agent at Social Security or to contact a representative at a law firm dealing with Social Security cases to determine what your best options are.
Finally, all the above relates to whether you have disability-insured status based on your own record. There are various ways in which an individual might draw disability benefits based off another worker’s record, including for a spouse, a divorced spouse, and children. There are specific rules for eligibility and limitations for each of these categories of individual who might be able to claim benefits based off another’s record. Then there is also Supplemental Security Income, available for people with little or no income and very little assets. But that’s outside the scope of today’s post!