For many people, even those who diligently plan for a rainy day, disability is often overlooked as a potential life crisis. Perhaps you have purchased life insurance and have been investing in a savings plan but have not given much thought as to what you or your family would do in the event of a disability. If you have thought of Social Security only in terms of retirement benefits, it may provide some relief to know that if you are unable to work due to a medical condition that is projected to continue for a minimum of one year, or if you suffer from a terminal illness, you may qualify for Social Security benefits.

Two programs for people with disabilities

There are two types of programs designed to support qualified individuals with a disability. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) pays disability benefits to the disabled person and specific family members, assuming you have earned enough working credits and paid Social Security taxes. Your earnings record may also be used to qualify an adult child who became disabled prior to 22 years of age. The second model of support is Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This is designed to assist disabled adults and children with limited means. The benefits hinge on financial need.

Prepare to qualify and apply

The same requirements and process apply to both programs. One way to get started is to access the Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool (BEST) through the SSA government website. It is not an application but an aid to guide you in determining eligibility for Social Security benefits. The next step is to complete the application. This can be accomplished in person, online, on the phone or by mail. The SSA offers starter kits to help you or your child prepare for a disability application or interview.

Application process

As the claimant, you would describe your impairment, treatment and other disability-related details. A representative in the local SSA field office verifies such basic information as age, employment, marital status and Social Security coverage. Once that evaluation is complete, the application is forwarded to Disability Determination Services (DDS). At this point, the medical evidence is examined, and an initial determination is made. If the application is approved, the local field office calculates the amount of benefits and issues payments. If the application is declined, the claimant has the right to appeal.

Estimated disability benefits

Register on to access your Social Security statement. The “Your Estimated Benefits” section includes an estimate for retirement, disability, family survivors and Medicare. Qualification is tied to credits earned through working. If you have earned enough credits to qualify for benefits, the form will provide an estimate of the level of benefits you can anticipate receiving.

Once you reach full retirement age, Social Security disability benefits will change over to retirement benefits. This happens automatically because the law prohibits anyone from receiving both retirement and disability benefits off one earnings record simultaneously.

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