Getting Social Security Retirement and Disability Benefits

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a special program managed by the Social Security Administration, intended to provide income supplements to U.S. taxpayers who are disabled and, as a result, unable to work. In most cases, the disability is physical and long-lasting; SSDI payments are usually temporary, but they can become permanent in cases of chronic or irremediable disability.

One feature of SSDI is that is does not depend on the income level of the recipient; disabled persons of all income levels are eligible for benefits. However, an applicant can only qualify if her or she:

(1) Has a physical or mental condition preventing engagement in a “substantial gainful activity”;

(2) Has a condition expected to last a full year or longer, or expected to be terminal;

(3) Has not yet reached full retirement age; and

(4) Has accumulated twenty Social Security “credits” over the ten years prior to the onset of the disability (full-time workers generally accumulate four credits each year).

Some of these requirements may be waived, depending on circumstances. For instance, a young worker who becomes disabled but who has not had time to accumulate twenty credits may be able to collect disability benefits using a parent’s work credits. However, medical evidence is required to substantiate the disability. The Social Security case worker follows a sequential evaluation of the evidence to determine whether the disability is severe, whether the disability is included in a “listing of impairments” maintained by the Social Security Administration (SSA), and indeed whether the applicant is able to do any work at all. Generally, if the applicant can work in some capacity, benefits are denied. Applicants are entitled to an appeals process, although it’s helpful to have a disability representative working on your behalf; fees that such representatives can charge are limited by law.

What if you are an older worker who becomes disabled but who also becomes eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits? You might be tempted to ask, Can I get retirement benefits and SSDI benefits simultaneously? In a word, no. If you are already receiving retirement benefits and apply for disability, you will continue to receive your retirement checks while your disability application is being examined. However, if you are approved for SSDI benefits, then your retirement checks will cease and you will begin receiving disability checks. And if you are eventually denied disability benefits, even after a lengthy appeals process, you will continue receiving retirement benefits without interruption.

Confusingly, if you are already receiving retirement benefits and successfully apply for SSDI benefits, your ensuing disability checks may be somewhat reduced. You are unlikely to receive full disability unless it can be demonstrated that the month you first became disabled was prior to the month you received your first retirement benefit payment. Also, as noted above, if you’ve already reached full retirement age — age 65 to 67, depending on your year of birth — then you are not eligible for disability benefits. Therefore, if you’re getting disability checks, as soon as you reach your full retirement age, your disability benefits will automatically be converted to retirement benefits.

There are many issues involved, and, if you believe you may have an option between retirement benefits and disability benefits, you should obviously determine which option would result in a bigger monthly check. If you’re already receiving Social Security retirement checks before your full retirement age — you can start getting checks as early as age 62 — these checks will necessarily be at a reduced amount, so getting three or four years of disability checks instead, from age 62 to 65 for instance, may well be to your advantage. But you should at least consult with a case worker at your local Social Security service center, or hire a personal representative, to help you sort through the options and determine the most advantageous course.