How to Survive the Wait for Social Security Disability Benefits

You expect to work, earn an income and support yourself for many productive years, stopping only when you’re ready to retire on your own terms.

That’s what everyone wants.

But what if life doesn’t cooperate?

If health problems prematurely stop you from working, it could collapse your finances. The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, however, could catch your fall.

Here’s the problem: You’re going to have to find ways of staying financially afloat while you wait for benefits. And the wait can be long.

If you’re facing the need for disability benefits, it’s important to understand what’s going on with SSDI and how you can deal with it.

A Quiet Crisis in Social Security Disability

For many people, disability is not just a hypothetical question.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) says 20-year-olds starting out in their careers have a 25% chance of experiencing a disability by retirement age.

About 9 million workers with disabilities receive SSDI benefits.

If you’ve worked, paid into the Social Security system and suffered a medical condition that will make it impossible for you to work for at least a year, this program was designed for you.

The average monthly benefit was $1,166 in June 2016.

That might not seem like a lot, but it can make the difference between paying crucial bills and financial ruin.

The system, however, is undergoing a quiet crisis.

It has a huge administrative backlog.

A hearing before a judge is often the most important step in your SSDI claim, but more than 1.1 million people were stuck waiting for hearings in 2016.

The wait time averaged 530 days – about a year and a half – last year, according to a report by the SSA’s Office of Inspector General.

This puts people in dire situations.

One study of applications from 1996 to 2007 found 42,000 people even died while waiting for a decision on their claims.

A December 2016 editorial in The Des Moines Register called this “the stuff of nightmares.”

“Year after year, hundreds of thousands of Americans with serious health issues lose their cars and their homes as they wait for legitimate claims for disability benefits to be processed and approved,” The Register wrote.

Meanwhile, this program gets much less attention than its more famous cousin, the Social Security retirement plan.

Strategies to Help You Cope

It’s tragic: We have a safety net for people in financial crisis because of disabilities, but we still leave them dangling for months in a potentially desperate situation.

If you’re grappling with this, you’ll need a multi-part strategy to sustain yourself while you wait:

  • First, make sure your SSDI application is strong. You can cut the wait itself and avoid unnecessary delays if you pay careful attention to detail in your disability application.

Answer all the questions accurately. Meet all the deadlines. Keep track of all the medical records that document your disability and treatment.

  • Second, consider whether you qualify for another kind of benefits. If your disability resulted from an illness or injury that happened at work, you might qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.

Workers’ comp rules vary from state to state, but the benefits can provide tremendous relief.

Also check to see if you’re covered by long-term disability insurance, either provided by your employer or under a policy you bought yourself.

  • Third, tighten your budget. It’s unavoidable that you’ll have to scrutinize all of your spending and cut back anywhere you can.

It’s not financially ideal, but you might need to look at drawing early from retirement savings or taking out equity on your home.

  • Fourth, look for local social services that might help you. Your community could have assistance programs that cover some of your needs while you wait for a decision on your disability claim.

Seek out your local department of social services and talk to a social worker there who could guide you through the options available.

  • Fifth, find charities that can help. If you’ve always worked and now need help covering basic expenses, it can be humbling to seek the aid of charitable groups.

But don’t be too shy. They could offer vital relief for some of your housing, food, utilities or transportation costs.

  • Sixth, consider federal social services. If your income and assets are below certain thresholds, a program like food stamps could fill the gap in your ability to stay nourished.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program runs food stamps. The amount of benefits depends on your family size and economic situation.

It can feel hopeless to suffer a disability, lose your income, apply for disability benefits, receive an initial denial of those benefits and then get stuck in a long wait for a hearing.

It shouldn’t be this hard.

We need more attention for the backlogs in Social Security Disability. We need leadership and solutions.

But it’s not hopeless. You can win benefits at the hearing level. And you can make a plan to get you through to better days.

BIO: Andrew Mathis is an Accredited Disability Representative in the Washington, D.C., area. Over three decades, he has represented thousands of Social Security Disability claimants.  


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