What I Learned About Social Security Disability

What I Learned About Social Security Disability

I had my claim for Social Security disability approved the other day. This came as quite a surprise to me. A pleasant surprise because it means income, but a surprise nonetheless.

I never intended to apply for Social Security disability benefits. While this is a national program, reviews and determinations are done locally1 and Texas has a horrible reputation for denying disability claims. I was basically told that I would have to show up at the Social Security office on a hospital gurney with an IV in my arm and a clergyman administering last rites to even be considered. Other anecdotal information indicates that getting disability approved for RA when you’re not bed-ridden or in a wheel chair is equally as challenging.

All that being said, when I left full-time employment last November I was covered by disability insurance through my employer, for which I did apply, and related to that process I was required to apply for Social Security Disability benefits. I learned several things during that process.

Be prepared. I applied online at www.ssa.gov which is amazingly easy, but you have to be prepared. (You can also apply on the phone or in person.) Because I was already involved in a private disability claim, I had most of the information in front of me and it only took about an hour to go through the process. Be aware that you need all of your doctors’ contact information as well as your monthly earnings information. In addition, you need to provide what medical records you already have. Social Security will contact your doctors for the information, but the process is quicker if you have them already. You can send them in or drop them by your local Social Security office.

The benefit is for long-term or permanent disability. The primary litmus test2 for disability approval is that you have a condition that will prevent you from substantial gainful activity (SGA)3 for at least a year or is expected to result in your death. For 2016, SGA is defined as $1,130 per month. You will not be approved for benefits, for example, for being out of work for six months due to illness or injury. Your doctors (and perhaps the government’s physician) will need to certify this.

No benefits are paid for the first six months. According to my notification letter, you do not receive any benefits for the first six months of disability, so you need to plan for living expenses during this time. In my case, they determined I was disabled from the time I left work in mid-November and started paying benefits six months later in June. If you are 62 or older, you can apply for Social Security retirement benefits at the same time you apply for disability, so at least you can draw some income while your disability claim is being reviewed.

It can take a while for approval. I’m not sure why, but my claim was approved in only about three months, which, according to the Social Security Administration, is normal4. You need to realize that it’s estimated to take three to four months once they receive all the information. If it takes several months just to receive your medical records or other information, then that expands the time needed for a determination.

Your benefits are equal to your full retirement amount. Social Security disability benefits are basically the amount you would be due, based on your current earnings record, at full retirement age. Like retirement, the longer you work, the more you pay in and the greater the amount you will receive. When you reach full retirement age your disability benefits automatically convert to retirement benefits. Full retirement age is 66 if you were born between 1943 and 1954 or age 67 if you were born in 1955 or later5.

Note that most disability claims are denied at first. Fellow contributor, Mariah Leach has written an excellent article on the appeals process.

On one hand, since I can no longer work full time, I’m really glad that I have disability benefits coming in every month. On the other hand, it’s a sad realization that RA has brought me to the point that I have officially earned the “disabled” badge. If you’re considering applying for these benefits, I hope you found this information helpful.

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