How Can I Get The Credits Needed To Qualify For Social Security Disability Benefits?

Oct 13 2017 - 3:55pm

Dear Larry,
I am wrangling with the IRS about certain prior tax years, and my sisters want me to apply for disability. My social security statement says I "do not have enough credits in the right time period" for any SSDI benefits. I have many questions, but have narrowed them to 3:

1) How can I know exactly what I need to earn in the last 10 years to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits -- SSDI versus SSI -- and does it matter if nearly all the credits are in one or two years? I will be filing for a few of those years and can legitimately write off business expenses and high medical expenses, or I can be sure to have enough income in those years.

2) How do the following affect social security credits in any one year: Being in school half-time? Drawing a small pension ($3,500/year), a benefit I’ve drawn early from my work at a private company? (and if you want to answer more: Unemployment benefits? Being in hardship status with student loans?)

3) If I make a payment plan with the IRS for back-taxes, can I triage and make a priority of paying the social security part first?

I will be filing for 2016 (the 10/16 extended deadline) and some earlier years (2012-2014) because the IRS just moved me out of "uncollectible" status and we are entering negotiations about taxes they say I owe for 2008. Although I paid a lot of taxes that year, I expect I owe some for defaulted 401k loans, but not nearly what they say.

I spent most of the past 10 years taking care of sick family and back to school, finishing my undergrad degree and completing a master's (trying to shift out of the dying publishing business). Since then, freelance work has been sparse at best, and the businesses I tried to start didn't pan out.

Now I am 57 and my longtime mild autoimmune condition took a very bad turn last year, rendering work impossible—for now, I hope. But some of my doctors don’t think it will get better, and my sisters are not optimistic.

In any case, I have not been earning money since June 2016, and probably won’t be very soon.
So I must try to do my best with what I have for those past-year filings. From 2012-2014, I made so little money I couldn't afford an accountant and wasn’t going to owe anything anyway. But I was self-employed with write-offs I could decide not to use, giving me a little flexibility.

Thank you very much for your attention—and the great work you do helping people sort out these important issues. I wish I had discovered you sooner. It’s amazing how quickly such issues sneak up on one with advancing age.
Sincerely, J

Hi J,

I'm sorry to hear about your health problems.

To be insured for Social Security disability benefits, you must have 20 quarters of coverage (QC) within the 40 quarter period ending with the onset of your disability ( That's the equivalent of 5 full coverage years within the 10 year span leading up to when you became disabled. You can only earn a maximum of 4 QCs in a year, and the amount needed for a QC varies by the calendar year (

Only earned income, specifically gross wages and net earnings from self-employment, is subject to Social Security taxes. None of the income you mention in your question 2 would be considered earned income, and would thus not help you obtain QCs.

I'm not an expert on IRS rules, so I can't answer your third question. I do know that in order to receive Social Security credits for self employment earnings you must file a tax return and pay the appropriate amount of self employment/Social Security taxes within 3 years, 3 months and 15 days of the end of the tax year in question. So, if you filed a tax return or amended tax return today, you could only potentially obtain Social Security credits for the years 2014, 2015 & 2016.

Best, Jerry