Social Security Disability FAQs

Do I have to pay income tax on my Social Security benefits?

Some people who get Social Security will have to pay taxes on their benefits. Less than one-third of current beneficiaries pay taxes on their benefits. You will have to pay federal taxes on your benefits if you file a federal tax return as an “individual” and your total income is more than $25,000. If you file a joint return, you will have to pay taxes if you and your spouse have a total income that is more than $32,000. For more information, call the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) toll-free at 1-800-829-3676 and ask for IRS Publication Number 915, Social Security and Equivalent Railroad Retirement Benefits. People who are deaf or hard of hearing may call the IRS toll-free number, 1-800-829-4059.

How much can I earn and still receive Social Security disability benefits?

There are special rules called “work incentives” that help you keep your cash benefits and Medicare while you test your ability to work. For example, there is a trial work period during which you can receive full benefits regardless of how much you earn, as long as you report your work activity and continue to have a disabling impairment. The trial work period continues until you accumulate nine months (not necessarily consecutive) in which you perform what are called “services” within a rolling 60-month period. SSA will consider your work to be “services” if you earn more than $640 a month in 2007. For 2006, this amount was $620. After the trial work period ends, your benefits will stop for months your earnings are at a level SSA considers “substantial.” For 2008 “substantial” gainful employment is measured as earnings above $940 per month. This amount increases each year – for 2007 it was $900; for 2006, this amount was $860. Different amounts apply to people who are disabled because of blindness. For an additional 36 months after completing the trial work period, SSA can start your benefits again if your earnings fall below the “substantial” level and you continue to have a disabling impairment.

Do disabled children qualify for benefits?

There are two Social Security disability programs that include disabled children. Under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, a child from birth to age 18 may receive monthly payments based on disability or blindness if: he or she has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets the definition of disability for children, and the income and resources of the parents and the child are within the allowed limits.

Under the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, an adult child (a person age 18 or older) may receive monthly benefits based on disability or blindness if: he or she has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets the definition of disability for adults, the disability began before age 22, and the adult child’s parent worked long enough to be insured under Social Security and is receiving retirement or disability benefits or is deceased. Under both of these programs, the child must not be doing any “substantial work” and must have a medical condition that has lasted or is expected either to last for at least 12 months or to result in death.

How long does it take to receive a decison on whether I have been found disabled?

The length of time it takes to receive an initial decision on your disability claim is between 3 and 5 months. It can vary depending on several factors, but primarily on: the nature of your disability, how quickly SSA obtains medical evidence from your doctor or other medical source, whether it is necessary to send you for a medical examination in order to obtain evidence to support your claim, and if your claim is randomly selected for quality assurance review of the decision. If the initial decision is unfavorable – approximately 70% of all initial claims are denied – you need to file a “Request for Reconsideration.” A second decision will take approximately 3 to 6 months and about 95% of all cases at this step are denied. The next appeal is a “Request for Hearing.” Once you have filed this appeal, expect it to take up to two years before your case is heard before an administrative law judge. Most cases go to the hearing level before benefits are approved. Remember: you have only 60 days from the date of any adverse decision to file an appeal. If you have received an unfavorable decison from Social Security it is a good idea to at least talk to an attorney about your case. Most lawyers will offer a free telephone consultation to discuss your case with you.

Is there a time limit on how long I can receive disability benefits?

No. Your disability benefits will continue as long as your medical condition has not improved and you cannot work. Your case will periodically be reviewed to make sure you still meet the requirements for disability. If you are still receiving disability benefits when you reach full retirement age, they will automatically be converted to retirement benefits.

Why is there a five month waiting period before eligibility for disability benefits?

The five month waiting period ensures that during the early months of disability, SSA does not pay benefits to persons who do not have long-term disabilities. Social Security disability benefits can be paid only after you have been disabled continuously throughout a period of five full calendar months. Therefore, Social Security disability benefits will be paid for the sixth full month after the date your disability began. You are not entitled to benefits for any month in the waiting period, but you may be eligible to receive SSI benefits during these five months if you qualify.

I currently receive disability benefits but my condition has worsened. Can my benefit be increased?

No. Your Social Security disability benefit is based on the amount of your lifetime earnings before your disability began and not the degree or severity of your disability. For SSI, the amount you receive is a fixed monthly benefit set by SSA, which may be raised periodically under a Cost of Living Adjustment.

Will I automatically receive Medicare if I am receiving disability benefits?

SSA will automatically enroll you in Medicare after you receive disability benefits for two years. SSA will start counting the 24 months from the month you were entitled to receive Disability, not the month when you received your first check. People with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) get Medicare beginning with the month they become entitled to disability benefits. Medicare has two parts – hospital insurance and medical insurance. Hospital insurance helps pay hospital bills and some follow-up care. The taxes you paid while you were working financed this coverage, so it’s premium free. The other part of Medicare, medical insurance, helps pay doctors’ bills and other services. You will pay a monthly premium for this coverage if you want it. If you are receiving SSI benefits, you may be eligible to receive Medicaid coverage as soon as you are found disabled and entitled to SSI benefits. There is no 24 month waiting period for Medicaid coverage.