Carrie Schwab Pomerantz
(SET ITAL) Dear Carrie: I'm 59 and recently suffered a severe injury that prevents me from working, possibly for several years. How do I know if I qualify for Social Security disability benefits? -- A Reader (END ITAL)

Dear Reader: I wish there were a quick and easy answer to your question, but unfortunately there's nothing quick and easy about Social Security disability insurance. There are a lot of rules and regulations, and it's tough to qualify. In fact, most applications are denied. According to the Social Security Administration, in 2013 only 885,000 out of 2.65 million SSDI applications were approved.

I don't mean to be discouraging, just realistic. Because while it appears that you do meet a couple of the qualifications -- you're under your full retirement age, and you have a medical condition that is expected to last at least one year -- the application and screening process is generally arduous and slow.

However, I can walk you through the basics so you'll have some information to draw on as you start the process.

BASIC SSDI QUALIFICATIONS

As I said, there are very specific regulations around disability benefits, and qualifications are strict. To qualify:

--You must be younger than your full retirement age.

--You need to have accrued enough Social Security work credits to pass two earnings tests: the "recent work" test and the "duration of work" test. The credit requirement is a sliding scale based on your age (the younger you are, the fewer years are required to have worked).

--Your medical condition must be so severe that you are incapable of working, and it must be expected to last for at least one year or until death.

--You can't earn more than a minimal amount of money ($1,070 per month in 2014; $1,800 per month if you're blind). However, there's no limit on the amount of assets or unearned income you have or how much income your spouse has.

There are certain medical conditions that automatically define you as disabled. The SSA maintains a list at socialsecurity.gov/disability. If your condition is on this list, the application process may be a bit faster. It's worth checking into.

HOW BENEFITS ARE DETERMINED

If you qualify, your benefit is based on your average lifetime earnings. Generally, you'll receive the same amount that you would receive from Social Security at your full retirement age.

The maximum SSDI monthly benefit for 2014 is $2,642. The average monthly benefit is $1,148. SSDI benefits are automatically switched to your Social Security retirement benefit once you reach your FRA.


Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

Carrie Schwab Pomerantz is a Motley Fool contributor.

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