Can You Get Disability Benefits if You Have Never Worked?

The overlap between different Social Security Administration (SSA) benefits programs can get confusing. SSI, SSDI, retirement benefits, concurrent benefits, survivors benefits, benefits for adults, benefits for children, benefits for widows and widowers – the list goes on and on. Each benefits program comes with its own set of eligibility criteria, and the standards for employment can vary dramatically.

In general, you can apply for disability benefits without a work history, but you need to choose the right program or apply on a family member’s employment record instead. A lawyer can help you figure out if you are eligible based on someone else’s record or determine whether need-based SSI benefits are the best program to apply for.

For help with your disability application and eligibility, call our Pennsylvania disability lawyer at Young, Marr, Mallis & Associates today at (215) 515-2954 in Pennsylvania or (609) 557-3081 in New Jersey. We offer free legal consultations.

Can I Get SSI Disability Benefits if I Never Had a Job?

The two major types of disability benefits available through the SSA are Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Both are designed to make monthly payments to claimants who cannot work because they suffer from severe long-term disabilities. However, while each of these programs has a similar purpose, the employment standards for qualifying are not the same.

If you apply to SSDI, you usually need a work history that shows you have paid into the system before you can get benefits out of the system. SSDI is run like any other insurance program, with beneficiaries paying into the program so they can get benefits if they ever need them. However, many people can still qualify for SSDI benefits on a family member’s record, specifically for spouses or children who do not work.

SSI is not a credit-based system and is instead a need-based system. This means that you can usually apply to SSI as a last resort even if there is no other way to get disability benefits through the SSDI system.

Applying for SSDI on a Deceased Spouse’s Record

Many non-working spouses play important roles in their family as caregivers for children or homemakers. If the working spouse has passed away and the non-working spouse becomes disabled, they may be able to get benefits using their deceased’s spouse’s record instead of their own. This only applies in limited situations, but it can help widows and widowers get the benefits they need, potentially at a higher rate than they would be able to get under SSI.

Unfortunately, these benefits are not available to everyone. You have to be between the ages of 50 and 60, and your condition must have already started before your spouse passed away or within 7 years after their death. This means that disabled spouses who rely on their spouse’s income can receive benefits if their spouse passes. This is also beneficial for spouses who perhaps receive a disability in the same accident that killed their spouse.

This is unfortunately limited in who it can cover, but it is one way to get disability benefits without work history of your own. If you are younger than 50 and your spouse has passed away, the SSA essentially expects you to return to the workforce on your own or to apply for SSI benefits instead of SSDI.

Applying for SSDI on a Parent’s Record

Disabled children can often receive benefits on their parent’s records, potentially on an ongoing basis. The rules are different for minor children and adult children, but both age groups can often receive ongoing benefits from SSDI on their parent’s record without needing to apply to need-based SSI programs.

Minor Children

If your child is disabled as a minor, they qualify as a dependent and can receive benefits from SSDI. Typically, the standards used to identify a disability are different for children and do not include restrictions on their ability to work since children are not of working age anyway. The medical definition used for any given health condition may also be less strict for children.

If your child’s disability continues into adulthood and their condition continues to qualify as a disability under the adult definition for their condition, they can continue to receive benefits on your record. If their condition does not meet the adult definition, then these benefits will end when the child turns 18. If your child goes to school full time, then the benefits will end when they graduate, leave school, or turn 19 – whichever happens first.

If your child has no work history and turns 18 without a qualifying disability, they may find it difficult to attend college or enter the workforce. If their condition gets worse and they do re-qualify, they may be able to apply for SSDI again as an adult child.

Adult Children

Any child disabled before age 22 can typically apply on their parent’s work record. Many teens or young adults enter the workforce but are later diagnosed with a medical condition or involved in an accident that makes them disabled. If this is the case, you do not need to rely on your small work record and can instead typically apply on your parent’s record.

For this to work, you must be disabled before age 22 and your condition must meet the same standards for any other disabled adult. This means meeting a medical definition for your condition and having a condition that is severe enough that you cannot work because of it. These benefits are available whether the adult child has a work record or not since the SSDI application is based solely on the parent’s work record, not the child’s.

Usually, these benefits are allowed to continue indefinitely. However, people receiving SSDI benefits on their parent’s record cannot marry or hold significant assets in their name without potentially losing their benefits. The SSA essentially treats disabled adult children as dependents of their parents. If you have enough money or income to support yourself or have a spouse who can work to support you, the SSA will typically cut off the benefits being paid through your parent’s record.

Adults disabled before 22 could apply for SSI benefits if they do not have their own work record, but applying on your parent’s SSDI record might lead to higher benefits. If you do intend on getting married and leaving your parent’s SSDI benefits, SSI might still be available as need-based benefits, but benefits may be paid at a lower rate.

Getting SSDI Benefits for Non-Disabled Spouses and Children

Disabled workers can also get additional disability benefits for their children or spouses even if those family members are not disabled. The SSA commonly pays an additional 50-80% of the worker’s benefits to help support family members. This means you can receive disability benefits without needing a work history and without actually being disabled yourself, but only if they are paid because of your disabled spouse or parent.

Spouses qualify for additional benefits if they are 62 or older or if they care for your children (under 16 years old). These are the situations where the SSA has determined spouses should get additional benefits, typically limited to 50% of what you receive for your own disability. Spouses can receive potentially higher benefits if they have their own work record, but even if your spouse has never worked, these benefits are available.

These benefits are even available to divorced spouses in some cases.

Benefits for children are also available when you receive SSDI even if your children have never worked. Benefits are typically available for children under 18. These benefits can be extended if your child turns 18 while they are still in high school, and they will end when they graduate/leave school or when they turn 19 (whichever happens first).

Again, if the child is disabled themselves, they might qualify for their own benefits on your record.

Typically, each family member is limited to 50% of your benefits, max, and the benefits are limited overall to 80% total for multiple family members. For example, if you are disabled and have a wife and no children, your wife may be able to receive the additional 50%. If you have a wife and one child, they might collectively receive up to 80% (rather than your wife getting 50% and your child getting 50%).

“Work Credit” Rules for SSDI Applicants

SSDI is designed for people who have already paid into the Social Security system by working over the years. The SSA measures a claimant’s work history with a “work credits” system, where most claimants, with some exceptions for young workers, need at least 40 credits to qualify for SSDI.

Credits correspond with the claimant’s earnings and the number of earnings which equals one credit changes from year to year. In 2015, every $1,220 you earn gives you one credit. Workers can earn up to four credits per year, which would represent $4,880 in earnings.

As you might infer from these eligibility standards, you cannot qualify for SSDI if you have never worked, because that means you have never earned any work credits. However, that doesn’t mean you’re out of options. Even if you do not meet the employment criteria for SSDI benefits, you may still be a perfect candidate to receive monthly SSI.

Unlike SSDI, SSI is not contingent upon how much work a claimant has performed in the past. Instead, SSI is designed to help people who have limited income and resources. Even if you have never worked before, you could potentially qualify for SSI as long as you meet the SSA’s other eligibility standards.

First, you’ll need to belong to one of the following groups:

  • You are at least 65 years old.
  • You are blind.
  • You have a severe, long-term disability.

In addition to fitting at least one of these descriptions, you’ll also need to meet the SSA’s financial criteria for having limited income and resources. This means two things: you can’t be earning too much money, and you can’t have too many assets.

SSA Income Limits for Disability Benefits

The 2015 monthly income limit for individual SSI claimants is $733. This number is called the Federal Benefit Rate, or FBR. The FBR represents not only the maximum earnings per month but also the maximum payment a claimant can receive each month. In other words, you can neither earn nor receive more than $733 per month. The FBR for couples is higher: $1,100 per month.

If you earn more than the FBR, don’t panic. You could still potentially qualify, because some of your earnings don’t count toward the FBR. The SSA uses a complex formula to determine how much of your income is “countable,” and certain portions of your income and earnings are excluded. For example, the SSA does not count any of the following:

  • The first $20 of your monthly income.
  • Income tax refunds.
  • Loans that you’re responsible for repaying.
  • Need-based assistance you receive from the state of Pennsylvania or New Jersey.
  • The value of SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps).

Finally, you must also have limited “resources.” Your resources include all and any of the following:

  • Cash
  • Stocks
  • Bonds
  • Land
  • Vehicles
  • Life Insurance
  • Personal Property

Our Social Security Disability Attorneys Can Help

If you need help applying for disability in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, call the disability lawyers of Young, Marr, Mallis & Associates today at (609) 557-3081 in New Jersey or (215) 515-2954 in Pennsylvania. We have more than 20 years of experience handling thousands of disability claims and give free initial consultations. We will keep your information confidential.

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