Finally, after many months or years of waiting, you've got a letter from the Social Security Administration (SSA) saying you've been awarded disability benefits. How do you know how much you'll receive and whether you'll get backpay for the months you waited for the decision?
One of the key factors in calculating your benefit amount is whether you're eligible for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, or both. Other factors that can affect your benefit amount and backpay include:
This article will look at both SSDI and SSI benefits and how to figure out how much yours should be.
How much your monthly disability check will be first depends on the type of benefit you'll receive. Are you getting SSDI (for disabled workers who've paid enough taxes to Social Security to qualify) or SSI (for disabled people with low incomes)?
Your SSDI check will be based on the average amount of money you earned during your life before you became disabled. Whenever Social Security ("FICA") taxes are withheld from your pay, those earnings count toward your SSDI benefit.
Similarly, if you paid self-employment taxes on income from a business, those earnings also count toward your SSDI benefit. But Social Security won't count any income on which you didn't pay Social Security taxes.
For a quick view of your lifetime earnings, you can check your Social Security Earnings Statement. To do this, register for an account on "my Social Security Online." Or you can call or visit your local Social Security office to ask for help.
Social Security applies a formula to your average lifetime earnings to calculate the amount of your monthly check. The average SSDI payment is currently $1,483 (2023). Yours could be a little more or less, depending on how much your average earnings from work have been. The highest dollar amount you can receive from SSDI monthly in 2023 is $3,627.
The SSI program pays a maximum benefit of $914 a month if you're single or $1,371 a month for a couple in 2023. This is the most you could receive in SSI benefits (unless you also get a state supplemental SSI benefit), but it's not a guarantee. Other income, including certain other benefits you receive, will affect how much SSI you'll get.
Specifically, the SSA will reduce your monthly SSI benefit by the amount of any "countable income" you receive. Countable income for SSI purposes includes veterans disability benefits, unemployment, workers' comp, Social Security benefits (including SSDI and retirement benefits), or wages.
Other public benefits such as food stamps or fuel assistance don't count towards your SSI income. So, Social Security won't reduce your monthly check because you're receiving these benefits.
If your state participates in the SSI Supplement program, you'll get an additional payment from your state. See our article on state supplemental benefits or call your local Social Security Office to find out if your state offers a supplement and how much it would be in your situation (in some states, the amount of the supplement depends on your living situation).
Social Security handles income a bit differently for SSDI and SSI. Having some other income might not cause you to lose your SSDI or SSI disability benefits. It all comes down to which benefit you're getting and how much you earn.
The SSDI program only cares about "earned income"—that's wages or salary you earn from working. You (or your spouse) can bring in any amount of "passive" income, say from stocks, retirement accounts, or gifts, and it won't affect your SSDI benefit.
And even with earned income, you're allowed to earn some income without losing any SSDI benefits. But Social Security will cut off your disability payments if you earn too much income from working (in 2023, that amount is $1,470 per month, $2,460 if you're blind). That's because you would be engaged in what Social Security calls "Substantial Gainful Activity" (SGA). Social Security will no longer consider you disabled if you earn more than the SGA maximum.
If you earn less than the SGA limit from work, your monthly benefits won't be impacted by your income. If you earn more than that amount, the SSA will give you a trial work period of nine months to see if your return to work will be permanent. After that time, Social Security won't pay you benefits in months that you earn more than the SGA limit. (Read more about trial work.)
Since SSI is for people with low incomes, your countable income will affect your benefit. This means that Social Security will reduce your monthly check by about half the amount of your earnings.
For example, let's say you qualify for $914 per month in SSI benefits, and you earn $450 each month from a part-time job, and have no other income. In this case, the SSA would reduce your SSI benefit by around half of your part-time pay, or about $225 each month. That would bring your countable income down to about $250 and your SSI monthly benefit down to $664.
In general, the countable income limit for SSI is equal to the maximum benefit amount ($914/month for single people and $1,371/month for couples). If you earn more than this, you won't continue to qualify under the SSI income limits, and Social Security will terminate your benefit.
Collecting workers' compensation benefits will cause your disability benefits to be reduced. But workers' comp affects SSDI and SSI differently.
If you receive both workers' compensation and SSDI, Social Security will reduce your monthly benefits. This is because the SSA limits the total amount of combined monthly benefits you can receive.
Note that veterans disability benefits won't lower your SSDI check. And the specific rules about how workers' compensation reductions are made vary somewhat by state.
The 80% rule. Social Security looks at the total amount of your monthly workers' compensation and SSDI benefits combined. The combined amount can't be more than 80% of either:
The SSA will apply the 80% rule to whichever figure is higher.
If your workers' comp payment and SSDI check together take your monthly benefit income above that 80% mark, the SSA will reduce your disability check (SSDI) by enough to put you below the 80% threshold.
Example: Let's say your pre-injury salary was $4,500 per month. That means your workers' comp and SSDI benefit together would need to be less than $3,600 (which is 80% of $4,500).
So if your monthly SSDI check was $1,350 and your worker's compensation was $3,000 per month, your combined income would be $4,350—that's $750 above the 80% limit. In this case, Social Security would reduce your SSDI benefit to $600 per month, bringing your combined benefit amount down to $3,600 (80% of your pre-disability income).
Some states instead lower the amount of the workers' comp payment to reach the 80% amount, and your SSDI check is left alone. (This is called a "reverse offset.")
Getting workers' comp as a lump sum. If you receive your workers' compensation benefit as a lump-sum settlement, Social Security will still reduce your monthly SSDI check. The SSA will calculate the reduction using the monthly workers' compensation amount you would've gotten if you hadn't taken the settlement (dividing your settlement by the estimated monthly amount to see how many months it would cover(. Social Security would then reduce your SSDI check for that number of months.
Workers' compensation benefits are considered countable (unearned) income. So, Social Security would count your workers' comp benefit toward the SSI income limit and reduce the amount of your SSI check accordingly.
For example, if you qualify for $914 per month in SSI benefits and you're getting $500 per month in workers' compensation, the SSA would reduce your SSI payments by $500 each month. In this case, you'd continue receiving $414 in SSI benefits along with workers' comp.
Because it takes so long for Social Security to decide if you qualify for disability benefits, you can get past-due benefits ("backpay) for at least some of the months you waited. And there's no limit to the amount you could collect. But backpay is calculated differently depending on whether you get SSDI or SSI benefits.
You'll receive SSDI back pay based on what Social Security calls your "entitlement date." For SSDI, your entitlement date is generally 5 full months after your "established onset date," or EOD (the date SSA believes your disability first prevented you from working) or 12 months before the date you submitted your application—whichever is later.
Social Security will determine your EOD based on the medical evidence the agency has collected about you. That will include information like:
Having to wait five months before getting any benefits basically means your first five months of benefits are withheld. That means if the SSA says your EOD was 11 months before your benefits were approved, your entitlement date would be 5 months after that EOD, and you'd get 6 months of backpay (because 11 minus 5 is 6).
To collect a full 12 months of backpay, Social Security must have found that you became disabled 17 months before you applied for disability benefits (17 minus 5 is 12).
If the SSA sets your EOD for 14 months before your application, you'd be entitled to only 9 months of backpay (because 14 months minus the 5-month waiting period is 9 months).
For SSI, even if your disability began before you applied for benefits, your official onset date will be sometime after the date you applied. This is because the SSA won't pay SSI benefits for any time before you've submitted your application. Your SSI back pay will cover the time period from the month after your application date through the date benefits are awarded to you (at the earliest).
For instance, if you applied for benefits in February and the SSA awarded you SSI benefits in August of the same year, you'd be entitled to backpay for March, April, May, June, July, and August (up to the date of your first regular SSI payment). That's assuming you were disabled in February; it's possible that the SSA could say that you weren't disabled until June, and then you would receive back pay only for the months of July and August).
Note that there's no five-month waiting period for SSI benefits. And you'll receive SSI backpay in either a single lump sum payment or (if the amount is large) in three lump sum payments.
Different rules apply for a disabled adult child (a child over age 18 who became disabled before age 22) who is awarded SSDI benefit based on their parent's earnings record. For instance, there's no five-month waiting period. But complex rules determine the "entitlement date."
If you're a disabled parent, backpay for your disabled adult child's benefit won't go back more than 12 months before the date you applied for your own disability benefits. If your child becomes disabled after turning 18 (but before age 22), the earliest benefit date will be the first full month after your adult child is disabled.
You may need the assistance of an attorney to understand the benefits and backpay available to your disabled adult child.
If you're a disabled widow or widower, Social Security has a special survivors benefit you may qualify for. The date you begin to receive benefits in this program will depend on which of the following dates is most recent:
Learn more about how Social Security survivors benefits work.