Anyone familiar with the Social Security disability system knows there's usually a long wait between an initial application for benefits and eventual approval. Even if the Social Security Administration (SSA) approves your initial application, a massive backlog of cases means you'll likely wait three to six months to get a decision.
And if you have to appeal your disability claim, you can expect to wait much longer. It can take a year or more for your claim to go through reconsideration and a disability hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). Worse, if you appeal your case to the Appeals Council or it lands in federal court, you'll generally have to wait several years before you receive any lump-sum disability payments.
The silver lining is that once your claim's approved, Social Security will pay you past-due benefits dating back to the first full month after you applied, and sometimes earlier. Social Security will pay the back payments in one to three lump sum payments (more on this below).
The amount you'll get in back benefits depends on several factors, including:
Let's look at how Social Security handles lump-sum payments for both SSDI claims and SSI disability claims.
If your application for SSDI is approved, you'll receive a lump sum of backpay at least going back to the date you applied for disability benefits. But you might also get "retroactive" benefits—payment for the months you were disabled before you applied for SSDI. Social Security hasn't set a maximum amount of back benefits you can receive, but the SSA does limit how far back the agency will pay retroactive benefits.
To calculate how much lump-sum SSDI backpay you should get, Social Security will look at your EOD—the day the SSA says you became disabled. If your EOD is before the date you filed your SSDI application, you could receive up to 12 months of "retroactive" benefits. But you can't get more than 12 months—even if your EOD was several years before you applied for disability.
To receive 12 months of backpay, however, the SSA must agree that you became disabled at least 17 months before your application date. Why 17? It takes that long because SSDI has a five-month waiting period—meaning you won't get disability benefits for the first five months after your EOD. So to get a full 12 months of past-due payments, your established onset date needs to go back 17 months. And the counting starts with the first full month after your established onset date.
Let's say you applied for SSDI on July 3, 2023, and more than a year later, after an ALJ appeal hearing, the SSA approved your claim on August 19, 2024. And let's say Social Security has set your EOD as March 15, 2022 (the first day the SSA believes you were disabled and unable to work).
In this example, your backpay would be calculated as follows:
With an EOD of March 15, 2022, your five-month waiting period would start on April 1, 2022 (the first full month after your EOD). Your waiting period would include all of April, May, June, July, and August of 2022. That would make your "date of entitlement" (the first day you were entitled to receive disability benefits) September 1, 2022.
In this example, you'd receive 11 months of retroactive disability benefits. These benefits would cover September 2022 (the first month you were entitled to receive SSDI) through July 2023 (the month you applied for SSDI). On top of these retroactive benefits, Social Security would pay you 13 months of past-due benefits, from August 2023 (the first full month after you applied for disability) through August 2024 (the month before your regular SSDI benefits would begin).
Social Security always pays SSDI backpay in one lump sum. Your backpay lump sum would include:
In the example above, your SSDI backpay would cover 24 full months—11 months of retroactive benefits and 13 months of back benefits.
Note that if you hire an attorney to help with your appeal, Social Security will deduct your attorney's fees from the lump sum amount paid to you. So, if the SSA owes you $10,000 in disability backpay and your attorney is due $2,500 for helping you win your claim, Social Security would send you a $7,500 lump sum payment and pay the other $2,500 to your lawyer.
(Learn more about how much a Social Security attorney costs and how they're paid.)
In SSI cases, Social Security will award backpay starting from the first full month after you've filed an application for benefits (or the month following your protective filing date). SSI backpay differs from SSDI in some important ways:
There's another critical difference, too: If your SSI backpay is more than a few thousand dollars, Social Security won't pay it in one lump sum. Instead, you'll receive it in three separate installments, six months apart.
Generally, your first two SSI lump-sum payments can't be more than three times your monthly SSI benefit (including any state supplements, if they're paid by Social Security in a combined check). In other words, you can't receive more than three months of benefits at once. (The maximum SSI benefit for 2023 is $914 per month for individuals and $1,371 per month for couples.)
Let's say you're a single person, and Social Security has awarded you the maximum SSI benefit of $914 (and you don't get a state supplement). In that case, your first two back payments couldn't be more than $2,742 each ($914 x 3). You'd receive any additional backpay you're due in a third (and final) installment—which has no limit.
You can get an exception to the SSI lump-sum payment limit if you've been approved for SSI and have debts for certain necessities. That includes expenses related to your:
If you have such debts, you should tell Social Security about them and ask for an exemption from the lump-sum payment limits.
There are a couple of other times when Social Security will pay your SSI back benefits as one lump-sum payment. The SSA will send all your SSI back pay in a single payment if:
If you filed concurrent claims—that is, you've filed and been approved for both SSDI and SSI—you'll receive two separate award notices from Social Security, one for each program. You might also qualify for backpay from both programs in the same month.
But, Social Security won't send full payments of both SSDI and SSI backpay in the same month. Although you'd still get all of your backpay eventually, the SSA would spread the payments over a longer period of time.
Social Security can take a couple of months to issue backpay, especially for concurrent claims and in other special situations. Although the delays can be frustrating, you should be patient as it can take the SSA several weeks to process back payments. Still, if you haven't received any backpay after three or four months, contact Social Security to make sure your payment is being processed.
Learn about how Social Security calculates your disability payment and how the IRS taxes your back pay.
Updated January 27, 2023
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