Almost every applicant who is awarded Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits also gets past-due disability benefits, often called “disability back pay.” These past-due monthly payments go back to the date the applicant filed their disability application, and sometimes even earlier.
The amount of your Social Security disability back pay depends on three factors:
- the date you apply
- the date you became disabled, and
- the date you’re approved for benefits.
Your Application Date
The first factor that determines how much disability back pay you’ll get from Social Security is the date you apply for disability benefits.
Payment for the months following your application date. If you became disabled at least five months before your application date, you can get back payments for the months going back to your application date. You’ll receive back pay for the months between your application date and your approval date at your monthly benefit rate.
But, for SSDI, not everyone receives benefits going back to the date they apply. You’ll receive past-due benefits going back to your application date only if you were disabled before that date. That might sound strange, but it’s because most SSDI recipients have a five-month waiting period before they can receive benefits (we’ll talk more about this waiting period below).
Payment for the months before your application date. In addition to back payments, you might be able to get “retroactive benefits” going back to the date you first became disabled, which is often many months before the application date. Most people don’t stop working due to a disability and file for disability benefits on the same day. On average, it takes about 8 months for people to finally apply for disability benefits (6 months for those age 60 and older, 11 months for those under 48).
An SSDI claimant (applicant) can get up to 12 months of retroactive benefits (back to one year before the application date), but not everyone gets this full amount. You can get retroactive pay for a year before the application date, but only if you became disabled long before your application date. How many months of retroactive benefits you can get depends on the date you became disabled.
Your Date of Disability
The onset date of your disability—that is, when your disability began—is also when your SSDI waiting period begins.
When an SSDI claimant files an application for disability benefits, they indicate (on the application) when they think their disability began. This date is known as their “alleged onset date.”
Whether benefits will be payable back to the beginning of the 12-month retroactive period depends on how long ago your onset date was. Here’s where the other twist in calculating the SSDI benefit start date comes in: the waiting period.
Your Waiting Period
The third factor that affects when SSDI benefits begin (and how much back pay you’ll get) is the five-month waiting period. Essentially, after Social Security establishes an onset date for an SSDI applicant, the agency pauses the start of benefits for five months. (This rule doesn’t apply to applicants with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease—they get paid starting on their onset date.)
So if you apply for benefits soon after you become disabled and Social Security decides your claim right away, you might not get any back pay—you’d still be within the five-month waiting period when you get your approval letter. In that case, your monthly payments would just start at the end of your waiting period.
But most people do get some retroactive pay because they waited many months to apply for benefits. For these applicants, the waiting period doesn’t start after they apply, but earlier, right after the date their disability began. This date could be just a couple of months or several months or years before the application date. But Social Security has a rule that the five-month waiting period can’t start any earlier than 17 months before the application date (that’s why you can only get up to 12 months of retroactive benefits).
Combining all the rules and timelines here can actually get pretty complicated for SSDI recipients. It might help to look at an example to understand how the five-month waiting period affects back pay.
If you became disabled one year ago today and you apply today, Social Security will owe you some retroactive benefits. Your date of entitlement—the date Social Security starts owing you benefits—will be seven months ago (12 months minus the five-month waiting period). In your lump sum of back payments, you would get seven months of retroactive payments, plus benefits for the number of months following your application date that it takes for Social Security to approve your case.
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By: Premier Disability Services, LLC®