If your health is so severely impaired that you cannot work, you may have considered applying for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), a federal program designed to provide long-term financial protection for those who’ve paid into the program as working adults.
If you’ve been reluctant to apply for SSDI because of horror stories about mountains of paperwork, denials, and long waiting periods for your first check, take heart: Many of these tales are simply myths. And help for the application process is available – much of it for free.
To help you sort the myths from the facts, we consulted a Social Security spokesperson, a lawyer who handles Social Security disability cases, and a patient advocate.
Myth: Why bother? I’ll just be denied.
Not true for everyone, says William (“BJ”) Jarrett, a spokesperson for the Social Security Administration. While Jarrett says standards are strict, and the process is rigorous, the SSA wants to be certain the person is truly disabled and unable to work. And the rejection rate is high, he says.
”The allowance rates for disability claims in fiscal year 2013, the most recent data available, was around 33 percent,” he says. That means 33 percent of the applications received in fiscal year 2013 were approved.
“In my experience, people rarely get it the first time they apply,” says Melissa Proudian, an attorney in Fresno, California, whose primary focus is on Social Security disability cases. But if you’re denied the first time around, you can appeal.
Myth: SSDI will replace most of your work-related income.
“Social security disability payments are modest,” Jarrett says. “At the beginning of 2015, Social Security paid an average monthly disability benefit of $1,165.” The payment is meant to help people meet basic living needs, and the program is designed to replace some, but not all, lost income.
“You can’t expect that it’s going to replace your income 100 percent,” says Kimberly Calder, director of health policy for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and a patient advocate.
Social security disability insurance is not the same as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal income supplement program. One difference between the SSI and SSDI programs is how they are funded. With SSDI, employment taxes primarily finance Social Security retirement, survivors, and disability insurance benefits. Generally, Social Security pays benefits to eligible workers and their families based on the worker’s earnings, Jarrett says.
On the other hand, general taxes fund the SSI program, which serves the needy. SSI eligibility depends largely on limited income and resources, Jarrett explains. You can apply to both SSI and SSDI programs at the same time, and one is not easier to collect than the other. “If you apply for one disability program, we make and take an application for the other. Primarily, we do this to ensure you do not miss out on potential benefits for either disability program we administer,” Jarrett explains.
You can also return to work while collecting SSDI benefits. “We have special rules to help you get back to work without jeopardizing your initial benefits. You may be able to have a trial work period for nine months to test whether you can work,” he explains.
And you can work while you receive SSI benefits, too. But keep in mind that SSI is a needs-based program for people who are aged, blind, or disabled. “As a result, the amount of SSI you can receive is based, in part, on the income available to you. Generally, the more income available to you, the less the SSI payment will be,” Jarrett says.