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Social Security Benefit FAQ

Who is entitled to Social Security disability benefits?

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.

If family members are eligible, they will receive a separate notice and a booklet about things they need to know.

Under the Social Security disability insurance program (title II of the Act), there are three basic categories of individuals who can qualify for benefits on the basis of disability:

  • A disabled insured worker under full retirement age.
  • An individual disabled since childhood (before age 22) who is a dependent of a parent entitled to title II disability or retirement benefits or was a dependent of a deceased insured parent.
  • Disabled widow or widower, age 50-60 if the deceased spouse was insured under Social Security.
  • Been disabled or expected to be disabled for at least 12 months
  • Has filed an application for benefits, and
  • Completed a five month waiting period; however, the 5-month waiting period does not apply to individuals filing as children of workers. Under SSI, disability payments may begin as early as the first full month after the individual applied or became eligible for SSI. In addition, if you become disabled a second time within five years after your previous disability benefits stopped, there is no waiting period before benefits start.

Under title XVI, or SSI, there are two basic categories under which a financially needy person can get payments based on disability:

  • An adult age 18 or over who is disabled.
  • Child (under age 18) who is disabled.

For all individuals applying for disability benefits under title II, and for adults applying under title XVI, the definition of disability is the same. The law defines disability as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.

Meeting this definition under Social Security is difficult. Insured means that you have accumulated sufficient credits in the Social Security system. Visit the Social Security Administration’s Website to apply for an estimate.

When do Social Security disability benefits begin?

If you are getting disability benefits on your own work record, or if you are a widow or widower getting benefits on a spouse’s record, there is a five month waiting period and your payments will not begin until the sixth full month of disability. The 5-month waiting period does not apply to individuals filing as children of workers. Under SSI, disability payments may begin as early as the first full month after the individual applied or became eligible for SSI.

If the sixth month has passed, your first payment may include some back benefits. 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.

Example: The check you receive dated July 3 is for June. Your benefit can either be mailed to you or be deposited directly into your bank account.

Are Social Security disability benefits taxable?

Some people who get Social Security have to pay taxes on their benefits. The rules are the same regardless as to whether Social Security benefits are received due to retirement or disability. 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 + ½ 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, you will probably pay taxes on your benefits. Social Security has no authority to withhold state or local taxes from your benefit. Many states and local authorities do not tax Social Security benefits. However, you should contact your state or local taxing authority for more information.

How long do Social Security disability payments continue?

Your disability benefits generally continue for as long as your impairment has not medically improved and you cannot work. 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.

What happens to Social Security disability benefits when I reach retirement age?

If you are still getting disability benefits when you reach 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.

What happens if Social Security turns down my claim for disability benefits?

If you disagree with SSA’s decision, you can appeal it. You have 60 days to file a written appeal (either 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 as follows:

  • 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.

Will I receive Social Security when I retire?

Retirement benefit calculations are based on your average earnings during a lifetime of work under the Social Security system. For most current and future retirees, The Social Security Administration (SSA) averages your 35 highest years of earnings. Years in which you have low earnings or no earnings may be counted to bring the total years of earnings up to 35.

You can collect early retirement benefits at age 62, but you currently can’t get full benefits until 65 for persons born in 1937 or earlier. For persons born 1938 and later, the full retirement age increases gradually until it reaches 67 for those born in years 1960 and later. Then you can collect additional benefits for every year you delay your retirement until age 70. After you begin to collect Social Security benefits, you will continue to receive them for life.

How can I find out what Social Security will pay me when I retire?

You can create a my Social Security account with SSA and view your Social Security Statement online at any time.

Can I count on Social Security being around when I retire?

With retirement on the horizon for scores of baby boomers, it’s very likely that Social Security will be in your future; however, the Social Security trust fund will less and less able to pay benefit increases, which increase annually as the taxable wage base rises without some kind of reform.

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