How disability benefits can change your life

Developing a disability can be frustrating for many reasons, and the inability to work is one of the hardest things to deal with. In the U.S., 12.8% of people are disabled, and more than half of them (51%) are within the prime working ages of 18-54, according to an annual report funded by the NIDILRR, and the employment rate of disabled individuals ranges from 27.4% to 54% between the states. This leaves many unemployed, and not being able to work leads to depression and the feeling of being a burden on your family and loved ones.

Fortunately, disability benefits provided by the Social Security Administration can offer relief, giving a disabled person back their agency and dignity, though many are unaware of the rules and qualifications regarding the available benefits.

That’s why we’ve compiled this guide: to provide everything you need to know on the topic in a clear, concise manner. We’ll cover the available benefits, necessary qualifications for different age groups, how benefits are paid out, alternative sources of benefits, and more. After reading, acquiring the benefits that you deserve will be a whole lot easier.

What types of disability benefits are available through Social Security?

For most people, disability benefits will come through the Social Security Administration, which runs two programs: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). While the criteria determining whether you are disabled are the same, there are other important differences between the two programs.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

SSI is the Social Security program set up to give out monthly payments to those who have no employment history, or haven’t worked long enough to save up the necessary “work credits” (which you earn by paying federal income taxes each year) to qualify for SSDI. They are funded by general federal taxes, rather than payroll taxes like SSDI. If you’ve been significantly disabled for much of your life, you likely fall into this category.

Benefits begin to be paid out directly after the application process, is complete, although Social Security does not pay out retroactive benefits going back to the beginning of the disability, as in the case of SSDI.

Do you qualify for SSI benefits?

Qualifying for SSI benefits is not based on your work history, but rather your means, assets and disability status. Approval is based on the following criteria:

  • Being in possession of assets under $2000 for a single person, and $3000 if you are in a couple. This does not include the value of your residence.
  • Meeting the Social Security Administration’s criteria for disability. Here is the official list of impairments that render someone eligible for SSDI.

How much in SSI benefits are you eligible to receive?

The standard monthly payment in 2018 is $750 a month for an individual, up $15 from the previous year. Families are eligible to receive a bit more: $1,125 a month, $22 more than in 2017.

Your SSI benefit amount also subtracts any countable income you’ve received that month. So, for example, if you’ve earned $200 in given month, that amount will be subtracted from $750, leaving you with $550 in SSI benefits.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)

SSDI is an insurance program that people qualify for based on their accumulated work credits that they’ve earned through years of paying FICA taxes during their time in the workforce. Unlike SSI, SSDI will pay back benefits beginning from five months after the onset of the disability (the designated waiting period to receive benefits.)

For example: if you applied for benefits in April, 2017, but became disabled in March, 2015, you are eligible to receive back payments beginning though August, 2015, along with future monthly payments.

Do you qualify for SSDI benefits?

As mentioned, qualifying for SSDI benefits isn’t means-tested, like SSI benefits, but instead based on your earnings history. To qualify you need a certain amount of work credits at the age you apply. Remember: working full-time for a year earns you 4 work credits.

  • Below age 24: Young disabled people need to have six credits earned within three years before the onset of disability.
  • From ages 24 to 31: In this age bracket, you must have earned half the credits you could have received by working full-time between age 21 and your age when becoming disabled. For example, if the disability happens when you are 29, you’ll need 16 credits (32/2).
  • Age 31-42: 20 credits earned in the past 10 years before disability.
  • Age 43-61: Your work credits must meet the sum of the years between age 21 and the year prior to the beginning of the disability. For example, if you are 54, you will need 32 credits (53-21=32)
  • Age 62-Retirement Age: 40 credits are required. After a person reaches retirement age, disability benefits become standard social security benefits.

How much in SSDI benefits are you eligible to receive?

The payment amount of monthly benefits is based on the person’s earning history, with the average being $1,197 and the current maximum monthly benefit totaling $2,788. Individuals are also eligible for Medicare once they’ve received SSDI for two years.

When and how do SS disability benefits get paid out?

  • SSI: SSI benefits are paid on the 1st of every month once you’ve been approved. Post-approval, you will receive back pay starting from the date of your application, but not dating back to the beginning of your disability.
  • SSDI: The payment scheme for SSDI benefits is a little more complicated. Those that have been receiving benefits since before 1997 get their payment on the 3rd of the month, while those approved more recently receive their payment on a date that depends on their birthday. If it falls between the:
    • 1st and 10th: Paid on the 1st Wednesday of the month
    • 11th and the 20th: Paid on the 2nd Wednesday of the month
    • 21st and the 31st: Paid on the 3rd Wednesday of the month

How to apply

If you become disabled, you should apply for benefits immediately, as the application process and waiting period could take some time depending on your individual case. Usually, the wait for a decision on your case will take 3 to 4 months, but an initial rejection can tack on an additional 4 months, if you decide to pursue a reconsideration.

To apply, you must call or visit your local Social Security Office, which you can find by calling 1-800-772-1213, or using the online SSA office locator. Once you meet with Social Security representatives, they will determine whether you qualify for SSI or SSDI.

Frustratingly, 60% of disability applications are denied the first time, but appealing the decision is possible if the request is submitted within 60 days of receiving the denial letter.

Since the application process could take a while, you can hasten it by gathering the following documents beforehand. Having a wealth of information to give to a representative will also help your chances of being approved for benefits.

  • A list of your employers and job titles held
  • A copy of your recent tax return
  • Pay stubs from the past six months, if you have them
  • A letter from your current physician that states that you will be unable to work for a year or longer
  • Medical doctors from doctors, hospitals, therapists, etc.
  • Any recent laboratory results
  • The names of medications that you are currently taking

Helping a loved one receive benefits

A disabled friend or family member may hesitate to file an application for a variety of reasons: they may feel too embarrassed to apply for benefits, be too disabled to do so, or simply need that extra push.

Fortunately, there’s nothing wrong with helping an important person in your life receive the long-term care they deserve by assisting them with the application process. You do not need to be married or related to the person in order to help them complete--or even sign--their application, although the individual may appoint you as an authorized representative for dealing with Social Security business, if they desire. Visit the official Representing Social Security Claimants website for more info and a copy of the necessary form.

Alternative sources of disability benefits

Receiving benefits through Social Security isn’t the only route to go if you’re are disabled. Here are two alternatives:

Private disability insurance

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 33% of workers had long-term disability insurance in 2014, while 39% had a short-term insurance plan.

Disability insurance is offered by many employers, and typically holds significant advantages over federally-funded SSDI. For one, the qualifications for what determines a disability are much less stringent, and an individual is not burdened with proving the nature of their disability to such an extreme degree.

However, the definition of “disability” that decides whether you may receive payments varies from plan to plan. Some plans offer benefits for those limited to performing only some of their job duties, while others only award benefits to those completely unable to work, as in the case of SSDI. One more bonus is that you may be able to receive private insurance payments in tandem with SSDI payments.

Of course, the downside to private disability insurance is that you’ll need to have acquired it before becoming disabled, either by employment through a company that offers it, or having previously signed up for a plan on your own.

State disability benefits programs

In the United States, only five states offer disability insurance funded by state taxes. These are: California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, also provides its own disability insurance.

Additional resources

  • Social Security Disability Benefits Website: The official SS website covering SSI and SSDI benefits. You can learn more about the programs and application process here.
  • Consumer Guide to Disability Income Insurance: Put together by the National Association of Health Underwriters, this resource includes information on the costs and varieties of private disability insurance policies. It can also help you to find an insurance agent that will personally help you sign up for a plan.
  • Disability Statistics: An exhaustive resource of disability statistics dating back to 1981 put together by Cornell University.
  • Live Well with a Disability: A guide with advice on accepting and coping with a disability by, a trusted voice in mental health.
  • Coping With Disabilities: A guide giving advice and suggestions for dealing with the difficulties caregivers of those with disabilities face.
  • Disabilities Message Board: A message board where individuals with disabilities can discuss their struggles, give advice and offer support to people going through a difficult time.

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