Your Complete Guide to Disability Benefits

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Social Security disability benefits aren’t easy to understand Where get, but they are extremely important to some people. After all, about one in four Americans will become disabled before they retire.

About 65% of all initial Social Security disability claims are denied — though a substantial portion of those are later granted on appeal. The reason so many applications are initially denied is because Social Security uses what it calls a “strict definition of disability” to determine who qualifies. If Social Security doesn’t think you qualify based on what you submit, they will turn you down.

The key criteria for Social Security are that you:

  • You can’t do the job you used to do,
  • You cannot adapt to another job because of your medical condition, and
  • Are expected to be affected by your disability for at least one year Where die of it.

Candidates have a long way to go
The qualifying rules for Social Security disability benefits are designed to pay only those who are truly disabled for a long time. For this reason, it is important to begin the claim process as soon as you become disabled. Social Security rules and processes assume that you have another source of income or assets to cover short-term disabilities. Additionally, the application process itself takes time as Social Security reviews your application.

If you’re considering applying for disability benefits, you’ll need to have a realistic timeline, so consider the following:

  • It usually takes about three to four months to get a first decision.
  • If you are rejected, it may take another three to four months to process a reconsideration.
  • If you need an administrative judge to review the case, add another seven to 22 months.
  • If you need to appeal this decision within the social security system, it may take another year.
  • If you need to appeal in federal district court, it may take another eight months or so.

If you are ultimately approved for Social Security disability benefits, you may receive “retropay” benefits. This retroactive salary is based on the start of your disability, the date you applied for benefits and what type the disability coverage for which you are eligible. Still, there are no guarantees unless and until your application is approved, and you must cover your living expenses in the meantime.

What types of disability benefits does Social Security offer?
The Social Security Administration operates two separate disability programs: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSDI is funded by the disability insurance portion of your Social Security payroll tax, and SSI is funded by general federal government revenue. For either program, you can apply by phone or at your local Social Security office. You can also apply for SSDI online.

There are key differences between SSI and SSDI. First, SSI is a means-tested program. If your income is too high or you have too many assets, your application will be denied. From an asset perspective, the limit is $2,000 for an individual or $3,000 for a couple. With respect to income, the threshold is a number known as the “Federal Benefit Rates” (FBR). If your included income is greater than the RBF, you will not qualify. In 2015, the monthly RBF is $1,100 for couples and $733 for individuals.

Not all of your income counts for RBF. For example, the first $65 you earn from working in a month doesn’t count, nor does half of the monthly income you earn above that $65 level. However, some ‘in-kind’ benefits count as income, even if you don’t receive any in cash. For example, if you live rent-free with a friend or family member, the amount you would be otherwise paying for rent is counted as earning the money to cover your room and board.

SSDI, on the other hand, is not means-tested, but if you are able to engage in “substantial gainful activity” that earns you more than $1,090 per month (or $1,820 if you are blind), you will not be eligible for benefits. To qualify for SSDI, in addition to being disabled, you must have accumulated enough social security credits quite recently to receive payments. You earn a Social Security credit for earning $1,220 in a year, and you can earn up to four credits in a year.

The general rule is that you need at least 40 credits to qualify, with at least 20 of those credits earned in the decade before becoming disabled. If you are blind, there is no time limit on when you have earned the credits. If you are under 62, however, you may qualify with less than those 40 credits.

According to Social Security, if you become disabled…

  • Before age 24: You are eligible if you have accumulated six credits in the three years preceding the onset of your disability.
  • Between 24 and 31 years old: You are eligible if you have earned at least half the number of credits you would have received working full time between age 21 and your age of disability.
  • Over 31: See table below.

Age at Disability

Number of credits required



















62-full retirement age


Source: Social Security Administration.

Once you reach full retirement age, your disability benefits automatically switch to retirement benefits.

When are benefits paid?
For SSI, benefits are generally paid from the first day of the month following your approval, and back wages can be paid from the date of your application. If you have what Social Security calls a “presumed disability” — such as total blindness or a leg-to-hip amputation — then you may qualify for payments while Social Security processes your claim.

For SSDI, payments begin five months after the date of your established disability, but no more than one year before the date of your claim. In other words, if you were disabled on February 1, 2015, but did not apply until March 1, 2015, your five-month waiting period to start collecting benefits begins February 1, 2015. If, on the other hand, you were disabled on February 1, 2013, but did not claim until March 1, 2015, you would only be entitled to reimbursement benefits until March 1, 2014.

Also, while SSI payments are made on the first of the month, SSDI payments are made based on the Social Security payment schedule. If you have been collecting benefits since before 1997, your payment should arrive on the 3rd of each month. For new recipients, it depends on the day of the month of your birthday:

  • Between the 1st and the 10th: First Wednesday of the month
  • Between the 11th and the 20th: second Wednesday of the month
  • Between the 21st and the 31st: third Wednesday of the month

How much can you receive?
For SSI, the maximum payment you can receive in 2015 is $733 per month if you’re single or $1,100 if you’re married. The amount adjusts each year as part of Social Security’s cost of living adjustment, and your payment would be reduced by any book income you receive. You are also usually enrolled in Medicaid once you start receiving SSI.

For SSDI, your payment would be based on your lifetime earnings, much like a traditional Social Security retirement benefit. The current maximum benefit amount is about $2,663 per month, and payments are adjusted as part of Social Security’s cost of living adjustment. In August 2015, the average payment was $1,165 per month for a person with a disability and about $318 for the spouse of that person with a disability.

Additionally, you are automatically enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B after two years of receiving SSDI payments, and you can also enroll in other Parts.

What else can you do to protect yourself?
SSI and SSDI disability benefits are intended to protect against abject poverty a person who is permanently disabled and unable to work. They are not intended to replace your entire working salary and benefits – or provide you with a lavish lifestyle.

If you are worried about becoming disabled and losing the ability to support your family, you should also consider getting disability insurance. It’s often offered as a benefit, it can provide significantly better coverage than SSI or SSDI, and it can provide you with short-term and long-term protection. However, as with most insurance, it’s time to get it before you need it, as you usually can’t buy cover if you’re already disabled.

If you have private disability insurance, you can receive both private disability insurance and SSDI. Also, if your disability was caused by an accident at work, you can receive workplace compensation, but the total you receive cannot exceed 80% of your average salary before the disability. However, private disability insurance benefits are not excluded as income under SSI and as such these payments would reduce any SSI payments to which you would otherwise be entitled.

Take care of yourself and your family
Applying for disability benefits can be one of the most complicated processes you may face. By being prepared in advance, knowing the limits of government programs, saving for the proverbial rainy day, and protecting yourself with private coverage, you can prepare to navigate these rough seas successfully. The better prepared you are financially for the possibility of a disability, the better you can focus your energies on overcoming it, should something happen to you.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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