Disability Back Pay: How It Works

January 4, 2016

Because Social Security disability claims take a long time to process, past due disability benefits (known as disability back pay) are paid in many cases. How much back pay you might receive in a successful claim for disability benefits depends on three factors: your application date, the date Social Security finally agrees you became unable to work, and whether you qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

Under Social Security rules for SSI, if you’re approved, you’re paid from the first month after you applied. This is if, and only if, Social Security found you became disabled as of your SSI application date. This finding is far from a given, and is one of the reasons you need an experienced attorney. It typically takes Social Security several months to decide a case, thus the first few months of payments will, in all likelihood, be paid in a back payment.

For SSDI the important date also involves the date Social Security finds you became disabled. SSDI payments begin five full months after the date Social Security agrees you have met the disability standard, but no further back than 12 months prior to the date you filed your application. Therefore, it is very important to promptly file an application when you become disabled so that you do not lose out on months of benefits.

When you apply for disability benefits, you will be asked on the forms for the date you became unable to work. This is known as the alleged onset date (AOD). The selection of a disability onset date is a critically important decision. Picking the wrong date can affect your chances of being approved or can cost you thousands of dollars in back benefits. It often is difficult to pinpoint an exact onset date because it is common for health problems to develop over time rather than happen on one specific day.

Our best advice is to pick a date supported by medical evidence (e.g. medical tests, x-rays, MRIs, CTs, a doctor’s written records, etc.) and your work history (usually the date your health problems made you stop working). Given the importance of selecting the correct “onset date” for your disability claim, it is advisable to speak with a lawyer prior to filing an application.

When you are successful in making your case for disability and you are awarded benefits, you will be given an established onset date. This is the date Social Security agrees you meet the disability standard. It is set either by the Social Security Administrative Law Judge or an SSA Disability Determination Services adjudicator. The evidence presented in your case will be the basis for deciding your established onset date.

In other words, your doctor’s reports and notes, medical tests, your work history, your testimony (if there is a hearing) and the application you filled out in applying for disability benefits will determine how far back your benefits will extend.

When you are approved for SSDI, you will receive the back pay as one lump-sum payment.

When you are approved for SSI, you will receive your back pay in either a lump-sum amount or, if the amount of back pay owed to you is large (more than three times the maximum monthly SSI benefit), you will be paid in smaller installment payments.

As for timing, usually, you will receive some or all of your disability back pay within 60 days of being approved and getting your award letter. However, the waiting time can vary due to circumstances beyond the control of the claimant or the lawyer. For example, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) back pay can be affected by variations in the wait time for an “SSI exit interview”— an appointment where you must visit your local SSA office to update your income and resource information. Disability Insurance (SSDI) back pay can be delayed if your lump sum award is larger (over $30,000), since large payments require approval by a supervisor.

Notably, most claimants file for both SSI and SSDI in order to ensure that they are eligible for some payment when their claim is approved. Consequently, the process can become even more bogged down. There is often a breakdown in communication between the SSA local office and the SSDI payment processing center (often Baltimore, MD) in such claims causing further delays.

We find that it is helpful to think of Social Security like an assembly line. Each of these pieces must not only fall into place, but they must be handled in a particular order and by the right person. For example, a supervisor signature cannot precede the report from the claim’s representative at the district office.

Suffice it to say, when it comes to disability payments, there are complex issues that require the expertise of people who understand the mechanics of SSA’s often log-jammed system, complex payment process, and the SSA people involved.