Claimant-friendly Version: Ask Me Anything about Social Security Disability Insurance
Updated: September 24, 2020
Questions about a permanent disabling condition
Q: What is the meaning of “acquired disability”?
A: Some people are born with disabilities, and some people become disabled later due to disease, accidents, degenerative conditions, or something else. A person with an acquired disability was not born with their disability. This term applies to many conditions.
Q: I keep hearing the words severe impairment, disabled, and disability. What do they mean and what do I need to know?
A: These are important terms Social Security uses. They have specific definitions in that context. A “severe impairment” is a medical condition that limits your ability to perform work activities.
Social Security will find someone “disabled” if their severe impairments prevent them from performing even very basic jobs full time.
The word disability is often used in two ways – when the SSA refers to the Disability Program or when they talk about a person’s disability payments.
Q: Do my limitations have to be permanent to receive SSDI benefits?
A: Your condition or limitations do not need to be permanent. They only need to last, or be expected to last, 12 months. You can recover and rejoin the workforce, and that is often the best outcome.
Q: How do I get SSDI after being denied?
A: If the Social Security Administration denies your Social Security Disability benefits claim, you should get an attorney or a representative. They can help. Social Security has three levels of appeals: reconsideration, ALJ hearing, and Appeals Council. After the Appeals Council, you have to go to court if you want to keep pursuing benefits. SSA denies most claims, including 70% of initial applications. The key is understanding what SSA looks for and how to provide the evidence that will persuade the person evaluating your claim.
Q: Once someone applies for SSDI, doesn’t this mean they have to quit working for good?
A: No, SSA does not require a person to permanently quit working to qualify for benefits. In fact, Social Security not only allows you to return to work, they encourage it.
Q: Does SSDI replace my work income in full?
A: No, the program is not intended to work that way. Your Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) is based on what you paid into the Social Security system while you were working. It’s similar to retirement benefits you may receive from Social Security when you retire. The average SSDI payment is about $1300/month. Most benefits (or SSDI payments) range from about $800 to $2800 a month. If you live just on SSDI, your income will likely not be very far above the poverty line.
There are a lot of rules and formulas for determining each person’s payment. SSA, your attorney, or your claims advocate can help explain what you might be eligible to receive and why.
Questions about working while on SSDI
Q: Does my income affect my eligibility for SSDI?
A: There are a couple ways to look at this question. I will address both, and the short answer to each is yes.
First, your income and work history determine if you have enough quarters (or credits) to have SSDI coverage. Basically, you must work five out of the last ten years before your disability begins. You also had to make enough money during that time to qualify, but the amount is low. It is only $1410 a quarter in 2020.
There are lots of detailed rules, but if you want to learn about them, your work history, and your specific coverage with SSA, you should check out your SSA account online. “My SSA” is a good resource. The Social Security Administration is trying to get as many people as possible to activate their accounts and use the website.
Second, it is typically ok to earn income after you apply for SSDI. That income may be from work activity, insurance, investments, severance, workers’ compensation, litigation, inheritance, or many other things. Technically, as long as you are working and not earning over the substantial gainful employment (SGA) amount, your income should not matter to your case.
However, there are times when your income CAN negatively affect your case. If an adjudicator thinks you have enough money and do not really need the SSDI benefits, they may find a way to deny your case. If this happens, you can appeal your case, and the appeals are usually strong. Also, if you are working part time under the SGA level, some SSA adjudicators might think you can work more hours – even if your doctors say you can’t.
Q: Can I protect my SSDI benefits and still try to work again? If so, how much are people allowed to work and earn while on SSDI?
A: SSA has several options that allow you to work. People returning to work is good for Social Security and for you.
However, be careful when you work while receiving benefits because individual adjudicators at Social Security can interpret policies differently than claimants and beneficiaries.
If you are receiving benefits but you want to try to earn some extra money working part time, you can. You may work and earn up to the SGA level each month, as long as you never cross it. The monthly SGA level is the amount of money you can earn per month and still keep your SSDI benefits. Currently, it’s is $1260/month for non-blind individuals. It is important that you notify SSA before you start working – be sure to keep detailed records of your job duties and any accommodations you receive.
If you are interested in trying to return to full-time work above the SGA level, then Social Security has good options for you too. For up to nine months in a rolling three-year period, Social Security will continue to pay your disability benefits while you attempt to work. This nine-months of work is called a “trial work period.” If your trial work period fails, then you can stay on benefits.
If it goes well, then you can just continue working. Your benefits will stop because you are working, but if you become unable to work again, you may qualify for expedited reinstatement. It’s important to keep detailed records of your duties and any accommodations in this situation too,
just in case the SSA wants proof of what you did. You should always notify SSA and your representative before beginning any work attempt.
Social Security also has a national network that can help disabled individuals return to work. It is called Ticket to Work. It is only available to people who the SSA declares disabled, so you cannot access this program until Social Security approves your application. Generally, Ticket to Work could be better funded and organized, but it can help.
Questions about how to appeal an SSA decision
Q: I just got a cessation of benefits letter from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). What does this mean and what should I do next?
A: A Cessation of Benefits letter means SSA thinks you are no longer considered disabled or should no longer receive benefits for some reason.
One thing the Social Security Administration does very well in these letters is explain your options. The letter should tell you (1) how to appeal the decision and (2) how much time you have to do it. However, many claimants struggle with this process.
The good news is there are Social Security representatives who can help you. (Please note, some representatives are attorneys and some are not.)
If you had a representative when you first qualified for Social Security benefits, they are a really good place to look for help. Contact them again because they likely still have your file, and that will be useful.
The National Organization of Social Security Representatives (NOSSCR) 845-682-1881
The National Association of Disability Representatives (NADR) 800-747-6131
Your Social Security district office – Many times, they will be willing to help you submit an appeal OR they can help refer you to a non-profit representative.
Asking the SSA to consider your request for benefits again is sometimes easy and sometimes really hard. When people ask me, I tell them that they should really think about working with a representative. Most Social Security attorneys or representatives will look at your case for free to see if they think they can help you.
What’s really important to know is that the Social Security Administration has very strict rules about what representatives can charge you AND the SSA must approve all fees you might pay them. Also, you usually only pay the representative’s fee if they help you win your case and you actually receive SSDI benefits.
I hope I’ve helped answer your questions. SSDI is a great program, and like Social Security retirement, it is best utilized as only a part of an individual’s income-protection plan.
If you rely only on SSDI for income, you may have a tough time. If you add it to private, short-term and long-term disability insurance policies (usually through your employer), the program can really help. These group disability insurance policies usually require claimants to apply for SSDI benefits if you are disabled and unable to work. That way the Social Security Administration and the insurance company are sharing the cost of your benefits. This structure allows insurers to offer premiums that are affordable for employers and workers.
Talk to your employer to find out what benefits they offer – it will help you protect yourself and your income. If you are already thinking about applying for Social Security benefits, reach out to a professional representative. They are happy to help.