Social Security Disability Is Not ‘Irregular’

Q: I read your article explaining that SSI is not a Social Security benefit and is not paid for out of Social Security taxes. But I’m still confused. What is the difference between Social Security disability and SSI disability? And how are they different from regular Social Security?

A. I’m always puzzled when people differentiate between Social Security disability benefits and “regular Social Security.” Does that mean that the Social Security disability program is some kind of “irregular” benefit? The answer to that question is “no.” Social Security disability is a regular Social Security benefit, just like the retirement program. So, now let me clarify the difference between Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, or SSI.

First, let’s discuss Social Security. Most people in this country understand how it works. You have a job, you pay taxes, and that’s what qualifies you for monthly benefits.

There are basically three parts to the Social Security program: retirement benefits, disability benefits, and survivor benefits. You get Social Security retirement benefits once you are 62 or older. Your family (usually a spouse and minor children) get Social Security survivor benefits if you die. And you get Social Security disability benefits if you become disabled before reaching retirement age.

So, the Social Security disability program is just one kind of Social Security benefit. People who get Social Security disability benefits have worked and paid taxes. They just didn’t stay healthy enough to make it to retirement age. In effect, a Social Security disability benefit is like “disability retirement.”

And then there is Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. SSI is a federal welfare program run by the Social Security Administration but NOT paid for out of Social Security taxes. There are two ways you can get SSI. You qualify for monthly SSI payments either because you are old (over 65) and poor; or if you are under 65 but disabled and poor. In other words, there are SSI benefits for the aged, and SSI benefits for the disabled. Unlike Social Security, there is no requirement to work and pay taxes to qualify for SSI. SSI is what it is — a welfare program.

So, to repeat: you get Social Security disability, which is a “regular” Social Security benefit, if you have worked and paid taxes, and become disabled before being old enough to get Social Security retirement benefits. And you get SSI disability benefits if you are poor and become disabled.

Here’s another way to look at it. If Bill Gates became disabled tomorrow, he would qualify for Social Security disability benefits because he’s worked and paid taxes. But he would never ever be eligible for SSI because he certainly isn’t poor.

Q. I am 60 years old and have already retired. But I wasn’t planning to apply for my Social Security benefits until I am 66. However, someone told me that if I haven’t worked in the five years prior to applying for Social Security, I won’t be able to get benefits. Is this true?

A. No, it is not true. As long as you have 40 Social Security work credits (sometimes called “quarters of coverage”), you will always be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits.

There is a recent work requirement for the Social Security disability program. Specifically, the law says you must have worked in five of the last 10 years before filing for Social Security disability benefits.

But you are not interested in disability. You are interested in retirement. And there is NOT a five-year recent work rule for the Social Security retirement program. So, you can relax and enjoy your retirement. And you will certainly be able to collect your Social Security checks when you turn 66.


Q. I just learned my ex husband has died. A neighbor told me I am eligible for some of his Social Security. Is this true?

A. Gosh, there are so many “ifs, ands or buts” associated with your potential eligibility for divorced widow’s benefits, I simply won’t be able to give you a definitive answer. But I can give you some general information. All of the “ifs” you see in this little explanation illustrate the many variables there are to your possible entitlement to these benefits.

IF you were married for more than 10 years; and IF you haven’t remarried; or IF you remarried but that subsequent marriage has ended; and IF you are at least 60 years old and not working; or IF you are working but not making much more than $14,000 per year; of IF you are working full time but are at least age 66; and IF you are not due higher benefits on your own Social Security record, then you possibly might be due divorced widow’s benefits from your ex husband’s account.

The only way you will know for sure if you are eligible for anything is to contact Social Security at 800-772-1213.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at


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