Definition of Disability and The “One Year Rule”

Definition of Disability:

The definition of disability under Social Security is different than under other programs. Social Security pays only for total disability. No benefits are payable for partial disability or for short-term disability.  For all individuals applying for disability benefits under Title II (Disability Insurance Benefits), and for adults applying under Title XVI (SSI), the definition of disability is the same. The law defines disability as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.

In easier to understand terms, Social Security pays monthly cash benefits to people who are unable to work full time for a year or more because of a disability. “Disability” under Social Security is based on your inability to work. SSA considers you disabled under its rules if:

  • You cannot do work that you did before;
  • Social Security decides that you cannot adjust to other work because of your medical condition(s); and
  • Your disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year or to result in death.
As you can see, there is a time requirement to receive disability benefits. Thus, an individual who undergoes a major medical procedure such as surgery, but returns to work after 11 months and two weeks, is not likely eligible for benefits.

This is a strict definition of disability. Social Security program rules assume that working families have access to other resources to provide support during periods of short-term disabilities, including workers’ compensation, insurance, savings and investments.

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