Disability Benefits: How To Get All You’re Entitled To

Who is entitled to Social Security disability benefits? How is a “disability” determined? How long do payments continue? What happens when you reach retirement age? This Financial Guide provides information you should know about Social Security disability benefits in the event you or a loved one becomes disabled.

Table of Contents

  • General Information
  • Taxation Of Benefits
  • Benefit Payments
  • Having A Child After Benefits Start
  • Reaching Retirement Age
  • Eligibility For Medicare
  • Changes That Can Affect Your Benefits
  • How To Report A Change
  • Disability Case Reviews
  • Work Incentives
  • Benefits For Children and Students
  • Your Right To An Appeal

Every family needs to plan for the possibility of a disabling illness that prevents a breadwinner from earning income. Here is a summary of the part that Social Security benefits will play in your disability insurance planning the amount you’re entitled to and the rules that apply. This Guide also informs you of what changes you need to report to Social Security and the easiest ways to report them.

General Information

An individual who is determined by the Social Security Administration to be “disabled” receives an Award Letter, which is a notice of decision that explains how much the disability benefit will be and when payments start. It also tells you when you can expect your condition to be reviewed to see if there has been any improvement

Planning Aid: Social Security Disability Benefits gives a general overview of social security disability benefits.

You never have to pay for information or service at Social Security. Some businesses advertise that they can provide name changes, Social Security cards, or earnings statements for a fee. All these services are provided free by Social Security.

Generally, a worker is entitled to disability if he or she (1) is “insured” for disability (i.e., has accumulated sufficient credits in the Social Security system), (2) is under age 65, (3) has been disabled or is expected to be disabled for at least 12 months, (4) has filed an application for benefits, and (5) has completed a five-month waiting period. In general, to get disability benefits, you must meet two different earnings tests:

  • A “recent work” test based on your age at the time you became disabled; and
  • A “duration of work” test to show that you worked long enough under Social Security.

Certain blind workers have to meet only the “duration of work” test.

Disability is generally defined as the inability to perform substantial gainful activity due to a medical or mental impairment. Social Security pays benefits to people who cannot work because they have a medical condition that is expected to last at least one year or result in death. Federal law requires this very strict definition of disability and meeting this definition under Social Security is difficult.

If you are getting disability benefits on your own work record or on a deceased spouse’s record, your payments cannot begin before the sixth full month of disability. If the sixth month has passed, your first payment may include some back benefits.

Your Social Security disability benefit may be reduced if you are eligible for workers’ compensation, other public disability payments, or a pension from a job where you did not have to pay Social Security taxes (discussed later). You can expect your payment amount to go up in future years. Whenever the cost of living goes up in a year, benefits will be increased by that amount the following January. If there is an increase, then you will get a notice telling you about it.

If a person claiming to be a Social Security employee visits you to talk about Social Security or SSI, ask for identification. A bona fide Social Security employee will be glad to show you proper identification. If you have any doubts, check with SSA. Remember: Social Security employees will never ask you for money to have something done. It is their job to help you.

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Taxation of Benefits

Some people who get Social Security have to pay taxes on their benefits. About one-third of our current beneficiaries pay taxes on their benefits. You will be affected only if you have substantial income in addition to your Social Security benefits.

If you file a federal tax return as an “individual” and your combined income is more than $25,000, you have to pay taxes. Combined income is defined as your adjusted gross income + Nontaxable interest + 1/2 of your Social Security benefits. If you file a joint return, you may have to pay taxes if you and your spouse have a combined income that is more than $32,000. If you are married and file a separate return, then you will probably pay taxes on your benefits.

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Benefit Payments

When to Expect Them

Your check should arrive on the third day of every month. If the third falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday, then you will receive your check on the last banking day before that day. The check you receive is the benefit for the previous month, i.e., the check you receive dated July 3 is for the month of June.

Form of Payment

Your benefit can either be deposited directly into your bank account or paid through the Direct Express card program. The money is deposited on the second, third, or fourth Wednesday, depending on your day of birth. For more information: Schedule of Social Security Benefit Payments for 2023.

Direct Deposit. Direct deposit of your check is safe, reliable, and convenient.

Questions about direct deposit and Direct Express can be answered by your financial institution or any Social Security office.

Direct Express. Direct Express is a prepaid debit card that does not require a bank account, but still gives you the same advantages of direct deposit.

It is especially important to tell Social Security about any change in your mailing address when you receive your benefits by direct deposit. If you decide to change the account or the financial institution where your benefits are going, it is important to keep the old account open until the first benefit is received in your new account. It usually takes one or two months to process the change from one bank or account to another.

Duration of Payments

Your disability benefits generally continue for as long as you cannot work and your impairment has not medically improved. They will not necessarily continue indefinitely, however. Because of advances in medical science and rehabilitation techniques, an increasing number of people with disabilities recover from serious accidents and illnesses. Also, many individuals, through determination and effort, overcome serious conditions and return to work in spite of them.

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Having a Child After Benefits Start

If you become the parent of a child after you begin receiving Social Security benefits and the child is in your care, be sure to notify SSA so that the child can also receive benefits.

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Reaching Retirement Age

If you are still getting disability benefits when you reach full retirement age, your benefits will be automatically changed to retirement benefits, generally in the same amount. You will then receive a new booklet explaining your rights and responsibilities as a retired person. If you are a disabled widow or widower, your benefits will be changed to regular widow or widower benefits (at the same rate) at 60, and you will receive a new instruction booklet that explains the rights and responsibilities for people who get survivors benefits.

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Eligibility for Medicare

After you receive disability benefits for 24 months, you will be eligible for Medicare. You will get information about Medicare several months before your coverage starts. If you have permanent kidney failure requiring regular dialysis or a transplant or you have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), you may qualify for Medicare almost immediately.

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Changes That Can Affect Your Benefits

You should promptly report any changes that may affect your disability benefits. Family members receiving benefits also should report events that might affect their checks. The events that must be reported are explained in this section.

If you work while receiving disability payments

Notify SSA if you take a job or become self-employed, no matter how little you earn. Let them know how many hours you expect to work and when your work starts or stops. If you still are disabled, then you will be eligible for a trial work period, and you can continue receiving benefits for up to nine months. Also, tell SSA if you have any special work expenses because of your disability (such as specialized equipment, a wheelchair or even prescription drugs) or if there is any change in the amount of those expenses.

If you receive other disability benefits

Social Security benefits for you and your family may be reduced if you also are eligible for workers’ compensation (including payments through the black lung program) or for disability benefits from certain federal, state or local government programs. You must tell SSA if:

  • You apply for another type of disability benefit;
  • You receive another disability benefit or a lump-sum settlement; or
  • Your benefits change or stop.
If you are offered services under the Ticket to Work Program

Social Security may send you a Ticket that you can use to obtain services to help you go to work or earn more money. You may take the Ticket to your state vocational rehabilitation agency or to an Employment Network of your choice. Employment Networks are private organizations that have agreed to work with Social Security to provide employment services to beneficiaries with disabilities. Your participation in the Ticket Program is voluntary and the services are provided at no cost to you.

If you move

When you plan to move, give SSA your new address and phone number as soon as you know them. Also, let them know the names of any family members who are getting benefits and are moving with you. Even if you receive your benefits by direct deposit, the social security office must have your correct address so they can send letters and other important information to you. Your benefits will be stopped if they are unable to contact you. You can change your address here. Be sure you also file a change of address with your post office.

If you change direct deposit accounts

If you change financial institutions or open a new account, be sure to say that you want to sign up for direct deposit. You also can change your direct deposit online if you have a personal identification number and a password. Or, SSA can change your direct deposit information over the telephone. Have your new and old bank account numbers handy when you call. It takes about 30-60 days to change this information. Do not close your old account until after you make sure your Social Security benefits are being deposited into the new account.

If you are unable to manage your benefits

Sometimes people are unable to manage their money. When this happens, Social Security should be notified. They can arrange to send benefits to a relative or other person who agrees to use the money to take care of the person for whom the benefits are paid. The person who manages someone else’s benefits is called a “representative payee.”

People who have “power of attorney” for someone do not automatically qualify to be the person’s representative payee. For more information, ask Social Security for A Guide For Representative Payees (Publication No. 05-10076).

If you get a pension from work not covered by Social Security

If you start receiving a pension from a job for which you did not pay Social Security taxes – such as the federal civil service system, some state or local pension systems, nonprofit organizations or a foreign government – your Social Security benefit may be reduced. Also, be sure to notify SSA if the amount of your pension changes.

If you get married or divorced

If you get married or divorced, your Social Security benefits may be affected, depending on the kind of benefits you receive.

If your benefits are stopped because of marriage or remarriage, they may be started again if the marriage ends.

If you change your name

If you change your name, either by marriage, divorce or court order, you need to tell SSA right away. If you do not give them this information, your benefits will be issued under your old name and, if you have direct deposit, payments may not reach your account. If you receive checks, you may not be able to cash them if your identification is different from the name on your check.

If you care for a child who receives benefits

If you receive benefits because you are caring for a disabled worker’s child who is younger than age 16 or disabled, notify SSA right away if the child leaves your care. You must give them the name and address of the person with whom the child is living.

A temporary separation may not affect your benefits if you continue to have parental control over the child, but your benefits will stop if you no longer have responsibility for the child. If the child returns to your care, SSA can start sending your benefits to you again.

Your benefits usually stop when the youngest, unmarried child in your care reaches age 16, unless the child is disabled.

If you become a parent after entitlement

If you become the parent of a child after entitlement (including an adopted child) let SSA know so that they can determine if the child qualifies for benefits.

If a child receiving benefits is adopted

When a child who is receiving benefits is adopted by someone else, let SSA know his or her new name, the date of the adoption decree, and the adopting parent’s name and address. The adoption will not cause the child’s benefits to stop.

If you have an outstanding warrant for your arrest

You must tell SSA if you have an outstanding arrest warrant for any of the following felony offenses:

  • Flight to avoid prosecution or confinement;
  • Escape from custody; and
  • Flight-escape.

You cannot receive regular disability benefits, or any underpayments you may be due for any month in which there is an outstanding arrest warrant for any of these felony offenses.

If you are convicted of a crime

Tell SSA right away if you are convicted of a crime. Regular disability benefits or any underpayments that may be due are not paid for the months a person is confined for a crime, but any family members who are eligible for benefits based on that person’s work may continue to receive benefits.

Monthly benefits or any underpayments that may be due usually are not paid to someone who commits a crime and is confined to an institution by court order and at public expense. This applies if the person has been found:

  • Not guilty by reason of insanity or similar factors (such as mental disease, mental defect or mental incompetence); or
  • Incompetent to stand trial.
If you violate a condition of parole or probation

You must tell SSA if you are violating a condition of your probation or parole imposed under federal or state law. You cannot receive regular disability benefits or any underpayment that may be due for any month in which you violate a condition of your probation or parole.

If you leave the United States

If you are a U.S. citizen, you can travel to or live in most foreign countries without affecting your Social Security benefits. There are, however, a few countries where Social Security payments generally cannot be sent to. These countries are Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. In addition, U.S. Department of the Treasury regulations prohibit making payments if you are in Cuba or North Korea.

Let SSA know if you plan to go outside the United States for a trip that lasts 30 days or more. Tell SSA the name of the country or countries you plan to visit and the date you expect to leave the United States.
They will send you special reporting instructions and tell you how to arrange for your benefits while you are away. Be sure to notify SSA when you return to the United States.

If you are not a U.S. citizen and you return to live in the United States, you must provide evidence of your non-citizen status in order to continue receiving benefits. If you work outside the United States, different rules apply in determining whether you can get your benefits.

For more information, ask any Social Security office for a copy of Your Payments While You Are Outside The United States (Publication No. 05-10137).

If your citizenship status changes

If you are not a U.S. citizen, let SSA know if you become a U.S. citizen or if your non-citizen status changes. If your immigration status expires, you must give SSA new evidence that shows you continue to be in the United States lawfully.

If a beneficiary dies

Let SSA know if a person receiving Social Security benefits dies. Benefits are not payable for the month of death. That means if the person died at any time in July, for example, the check received in August (which is payment for July) must be returned. If direct deposit is used, also notify the financial institution of the death as soon as possible so it can return any payments received after death.

Family members may be eligible for Social Security Survivors Benefits when a person getting disability benefits dies.

If you are receiving Social Security and Railroad Retirement benefits

If you are receiving both Social Security and Railroad Retirement benefits based on your spouse’s work and your spouse dies, you must tell SSA immediately. You no longer will be eligible to receive both benefits. You will be notified which survivor benefit you will receive.

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How to Report a Change

You can report a change by simply calling the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213 or visiting any SSA office. You can also visit the Social Security Administration website. If you send a report by mail, be sure to include the following information:

  • Your name, and if different, the name and Social Security claim number of the person on whose account you get benefits
  • Name of person(s) about whom the report is made
  • Your Social Security claim number
  • What new information is being reported
  • Date of the change
  • Your signature, address, phone number, and date

If you are getting benefits on somebody else’s record (e.g., a spouse), SSA needs his or her Social Security number as well.

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Disability Case Reviews

Under federal law, all disability cases must be reviewed from time to time. This review is to make sure that people receiving benefits are still considered disabled and meet all other requirements. Your benefits generally will continue unless there is strong proof that your condition has medically improved and there is evidence that you are able to return to work.

Frequency of Reviews

How often your case is reviewed depends on the severity of your condition and the likelihood of improvement. The frequency can range from six months to seven years. Your Certificate of Award states when you can expect your first review.

Here are general guidelines for reviews:

  • Improvement expected – If medical improvement can be predicted when benefits start, your first review should be six to 18 months later.
  • Improvement possible – If medical improvement is possible but cannot be predicted, your case will be reviewed about every three years.
  • Improvement not expected – If medical improvement is not likely; your case will be reviewed only about once every five to seven years.
What Happens During a Review

After you get a letter announcing the review, someone from your Social Security office will contact you to explain the review process and your appeal rights. You will be asked to provide information about any medical treatment you have received and any work you might have done. Then your file will be sent to the state agency that makes disability decisions for Social Security. An evaluation team that includes a disability examiner and a doctor will carefully review your file and request your medical reports. If reports are not complete or current enough, you may be asked to have a special examination or test that the government will pay for.

Once a decision is reached, SSA will send you a letter explaining it. If SSA decides you are still disabled, your benefits will continue. If they decide you are no longer disabled, you can file an appeal (see below); otherwise, your benefits will stop three months after SSA determined that your disability ended.

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The Ticket to Work Program

Even after you start receiving disability benefits, you may want to try working again. Under this program, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability beneficiaries can get help with training and other services they need to go to work at no cost to them. Most beneficiaries will receive a “ticket” that they can take to a provider of their choice who can offer the kind of services they need. To learn more about this program, ask for Your Ticket To Work (Publication No. 05-10061).

For more information about helping you return to work, ask for Working While Disabled – How We Can Help (Publication No. 05-10095). A guide to all of SSA employment supports can be found in the Red Book, A Summary Guide to Employment Support for Individuals with Disabilities Under the Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income Programs (Publication No. 64-030).

“Substantial” Work

To understand how work affects your disability benefits, you need to understand how Social Security measures your work. Disability benefits can be paid only if you are unable to do any “substantial” work, referred to as “Substantial Gainful Activity” (SGA) by the SSA. The amount of your earnings determines whether your work is substantial. The Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) amount for persons with disabilities other than blindness is $1,260 per month in 2020. For persons who are blind, the amount of earnings that indicate SGA is $2,110 per month in 2020.

If you are self-employed, your disability is blindness, and you are age 55 or older, special rules apply.

Nine-Month Trial Work Period (TWP)

You can continue to receive benefits for up to nine months while you try to work. The months need not be consecutive, but they must take place within a 60-month period. Generally speaking, a “trial work” month is any month in which you earn over $910 in gross wages for 2020 or spend 80 hours in your own business (regardless of the amount of earnings). You will receive your full benefits during this period as long as you report your activity and remain disabled. If you recover during a trial work period, your benefits will stop after a three-month adjustment period.

At the end of nine months of trial work, SSA will decide if you are able to do “substantial” work. If you can, your benefits will stop after a three-month adjustment period. If you are not able to work, your payments will continue.

36-Month Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE)

If your benefits stop because you have returned to work even though you are still medically disabled, you receive special “benefit protection” for the next 36 months. During that time, you can receive a benefit for any month your earnings fall below $1,260 (SGA amount in 2020). You do not have to file a new application, but you do have to notify Social Security. If you are unable to continue working, your benefits continue indefinitely so long as you remain disabled.

Medicare Continues

If you are working even though you are still disabled, your Medicare coverage may continue for at least 39 months after the trial work period. Beyond that, you may purchase the coverage with a monthly premium.

Help With Work Expenses

If you need certain equipment or services to help you work, the money you pay for them can be deducted from your earnings in deciding whether you are doing “substantial” work. It does not matter if you also need the items or services for daily living (such as a wheelchair).

The cost of medical equipment, certain attendant care services, prostheses, and similar items and services is generally deductible. The cost of drugs or medical services is deductible only if required because of your condition.

Vocational Rehabilitation

When you applied for disability benefits, information about you and your impairment may have been sent to the state vocational rehabilitation agency. If they offer you services and you refuse them without good reason, your monthly benefits may be withheld. If you have not heard from them but are interested in receiving rehabilitation services, you should give them a call.

Your disability benefits will continue while you receive rehabilitation services. Under a special rule, benefits can continue even if you medically recover while participating in an approved vocational rehabilitation or training program.

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Benefits for Children and Students

If a child is getting checks on your account, there are several important things you should know about his or her benefits.

When a child reaches age 18, the child’s benefits stop the month before the child reaches age 18 unless the child remains unmarried and is either disabled or is a full-time elementary or secondary school student.

About five months before the child’s 18th birthday, the person receiving the child’s benefits will get a form explaining how benefits can continue.

A child whose benefits stopped at 18 can have them started again if he or she becomes disabled before reaching 22 or becomes a full-time elementary or secondary school student before reaching 19.

If a child is disabled, the child can continue to receive benefits after age 18 if he or she has a disability. The child also may qualify for SSI disability benefits.

If a child at 18 is a student, the child can receive benefits until age 19 if he or she continues to be a full-time elementary or secondary school student. When a student’s 19th birthday occurs during a school term, benefits can be continued up to two months to allow completion of the term.

Social Security should be notified immediately if the student drops out of school, changes from full-time to part-time attendance is expelled or suspended or changes schools. SSA should also be told if the student is paid by his or her employer for attending school.

SSA sends each student a form at the start and end of the school year. It is important that the form be filled out and returned to SSA. Failure to return the form could result in a suspension of benefits.

A student can keep receiving benefits during a vacation period of four months or less if he or she plans to go back to school full time at the end of the vacation.

A student who stops attending school generally can receive benefits again if he or she returns to school full time before age 19. The student needs to contact Social Security to reapply for benefits.

Benefits for the child of someone getting disability benefits always end if the child marries. The must be reported right away.

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Your Right to an Appeal

If you disagree with SSA’s decision, you can appeal it. You have 60 days to file a written appeal by mail or in person with any Social Security office. Generally, there are four levels to the appeals process. They are:

  • Reconsideration. Your claim is reviewed by someone who did not take part in the first decision.
  • Hearing Before an Administrative Law Judge. You can appear before a judge to present your case.
  • Review by Appeals Council. If the Appeals Council decides your case should be reviewed, it will either decide your case or return it to the administrative law judge for further review.
  • Federal District Court. If the Appeals Council decides not to review your case or if you disagree with its decision, you may file a civil lawsuit in a Federal District Court and continue your appeal all the way to the US Supreme Court if necessary.

If you disagree with the decision at one level, you have 60 days to appeal to the next level until you are satisfied with the decision or have completed the last level of appeal.

You have two special appeal rights when a decision is made that you are no longer disabled. They are:

  • Disability Hearing. As part of the reconsideration process, this hearing allows you to meet face-to-face with the person who is reconsidering your case to explain why you feel you are still disabled. You can submit new evidence or information and can bring someone who knows about your disability. This special hearing does not replace your right to also have a formal hearing before an administrative law judge (the second appeal step) if your reconsideration is denied.
  • Continuation of Benefits. While you are appealing your case, you can have your disability benefits and Medicare coverage (if you have it) continue until an administrative law judge makes his or her decision. However, you must request the continuation of your benefits during the first 10 days of the 60 days mentioned earlier. If your appeal is not successful, you may have to repay the benefits.

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