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Social Security Disability: FAQ

Social Security is a type of insurance system that's designed to support people who lack the means to provide for themselves. As with many important government programs, however, its nuances can confuse those who want to receive benefits. Learning how to qualify for disability involves becoming familiar with the definition of disabled.

Not everyone who has a verifiable medical disability qualifies as "disabled" under the Social Security Administration's guidelines. The rules are applied quite strictly, and the appeals process may be lengthy, so it's important to understand the ramifications beforehand. Here are a few things that people should know about qualifying.

SSI vs. SSDI: How Does Social Security Provide for People With Disabilities?

Two main Social Security programs are designed to help disabled people whose conditions align with the SSA's medical criteria:

  • Supplemental Security Income is a needs-based program that distributes benefits based on each individual's personal circumstances. For instance, it pays for food, shelter and clothes for people who lack income yet are so old, blind or otherwise disabled that they can't work.

  • Social Security Disability Insurance provides payments to any beneficiary who contributed to the system by working and paying Social Security taxes. Applicants need to have worked for a certain amount of time, but SSDI benefits can help their loved ones and adult children under certain circumstances.

The SSA's Definition of Disability

Most people who apply for SSDI or SSI have to prove that they meet the same uniform requirements. Unlike some social aid providers, the SSA is strict about the kinds of people it helps. One key distinction is that people can only receive payments for total disability conditions. In other words, those suffering from short-term or partial disabilities may find it more useful to seek aid elsewhere.

Even though the SSA applies rigorous standards to determine who can receive benefits, the disability definition is surprisingly brief. It examines how these issues impact people's lives, and it qualifies them as totally medically disabled when they:

  • Are incapable of performing work that they used to do
  • Have disabilities that are projected to last for a year or more or might prove fatal
  • Can show that their medical troubles prevent them from adapting to other kinds of employment

How to Apply for Social Security Disability

It's important to remember that the SSA also looks at the types of diseases that applicants have. For instance, some medical impairments are automatically considered severe enough to stop people from working. At the same time, however, people with other ailments can receive benefits if they prove that they meet the general criteria.

How do people demonstrate that they actually have disabling conditions? They need to provide a long list of documentation along with a formal Social Security application. Since this process can take months to finish, it may be wise to prepare the information needed to complete an application in advance, such as:

  • The applicant's Social Security number and birth certificate
  • Lab and test results along with medical records from doctors, caseworkers and other caregivers
  • Contact information for health care providers and documents detailing the dates and locations of treatment visits
  • Work information including the applicant's most recent W-2 form or tax return and descriptions of the location and nature of the prior employment

From there, a state-level Disability Determination Services office makes the final decision. During this process, SSA workers may talk to an applicant's doctors or request that the individual visit a caregiver for another exam. In some cases, the agency pays for this exam.

Can Individuals Work Part-time While on SSDI?

The SSA tries to accommodate people who still want to work while they receive SSDI and SSI benefits, but there are limits. People who start new jobs while receiving disability benefits can work earning more than $850 per month for a month-long trial period. In any given 60-month period, they can use up to 9 trial months to explore careers.

If beneficiaries keep working after their trial period, they have 36 months during which they can still get benefits in any month where their earnings fall below certain limits. At present, these caps are $1,180 per month or $1,970 per month for blind individuals.

In short, beneficiaries can work part-time. They just need to be careful about how much they earn over time.

Can People Get Medicare Along With Social Security Disability Benefits?

According to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, most people who receive SSDI have Medicare or are waiting for their coverage to start. It's important to note that this doesn't mean Medicare is guaranteed; individuals still have to apply and enroll in approved policies. Those who receive disability payments for at least 24 months automatically become Medicare-eligible.

Can Individuals Receive Disability Benefits If They Have Never Worked Before?

Since SSDI is funded by Social Security payroll taxes, people need to have sufficient work histories to get benefits. Applicants who lack this kind of track record can take advantage of the fact that the disability standards are the same for both programs and seek SSI instead.

If I've Been Approved for Disability Benefits, Can I Receive Back Pay?

People who get approved can collect back payments but only from the time when they applied until they received approval. Back pay usually takes the form of a lump sum, and it is distinct from the potential one year's worth of retroactive payments for provable disabilities that existed before the application.

SSI and SSDI benefits can have major positive impacts on those who apply, but it's important to understand the rules and regulations first. Even if people are eligible, their benefits won't actually start until a five-month waiting period has elapsed, so planning ahead is crucial.

Speak to an Experienced Social Security Disability Attorney Today

This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified social security disability lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local social security disability attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.

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