Will My Personal Injury Case Affect My Social Security Disability Benefits?
Guest Article Written By Social Security Disability Lawyer Michael Liner (Liner Legal)
Excellent question, and one that I get often from my clients. There are two types of disability benefits, SSD and SSI. SSD, which stands for Social Security Disability, is (generally) for people who have worked and paid into Social Security through FICA taxes for at least 5 of the 10 years immediately prior to disability onset. SSD recipients don’t have to worry about losing their benefits if they get a personal injury settlement. The richest man in the world, Bill Gates, could collect SSD if he became unable to perform any work.
The other program the Social Security Administration offers is called SSI, Supplemental Security Income. SSI does not have the same requirements for a past work history. Instead, SSI is a needs-based benefit which requires the recipient to show that, in addition to being unable to work, they are also very impoverished. To be eligible for SSI, you must have under $2,000 in assets if you are single (not including the value of a home you live in, a car you use for transportation, and a few other specific allowances) or $3,000 if you are married. This cap on assets is referred to as the resource limit. A PI cash settlement is an asset that Social Security would consider and potentially make you ineligible to receive SSI.
To summarize, if you are applying for or receiving SSD benefits, then you don’t need to worry about the impact of a personal injury settlement. However, if you are only eligible for SSI benefits, then a settlement that puts more than $2,000 (if single) or $3,000 (if married) may at least temporarily make you ineligible to receive benefits.
One of the eligibility requirements for Social Security disability is that an individual has a physical or mental impairment (or a combination of both) that keeps them from working for a period of a year or more. You can apply for disability benefits at any time, and from the Social Security perspective, it is not a requirement that you wait until you have filed a lawsuit or received a personal injury settlement. However, you should speak with your injury attorney about the effects that applying for SSD or SSI may have on your injury case.
If you currently have a personal injury case, that means you were unfortunately involved in an accident which may be preventing you from returning to work, such as a traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, PTSD, etc. You may want to apply for Social Security disability benefits right after your injury to help with the financial stress of medical bills or lost wages from not working. In addition, it may help your personal injury case because it further proves the long-term nature of the injuries resulting from the accident.
Both Social Security disability claims and personal injury lawsuits can take a long time. Personal injury cases may take a year or more to settle. Although how long it takes to get approved for disability benefits depends greatly on the extent of the injuries, many SSD or SSI take two years or more. As soon as you believe that the injuries you suffered may keep you from maintaining employment for a year or more, it is a good idea to file for disability benefits to start the clock on the long and arduous waiting process.
How do I begin the process of applying for disability?
There are several different ways to apply for Social Security disability benefits. Most commonly, people will file their applications online by going to https://www.ssa.gov/disabilityssi/. It is important to note that if you are applying for SSI in addition to (or instead of) SSD, you need to be sure to check ‘yes’ to the question which asks just that in the online application. In addition to applying online, many people choose to apply by conducting a phone appointment with SSA or going into the office to apply. Less common, though still an opinion, is to complete a paper application for disability benefits.
Do I need a lawyer to assist with my disability case?
I always laugh when I’m asked this question. If you asked a car dealer if they thought you should buy a car, or a watch salesman if you should buy a watch, of course their answer would be yes. That being said, there are definitely bona fide reasons that favor hiring a lawyer to assist with your SSD or SSI claim even though someone can choose to pursue a claim on their own.
You need a buffer…
In my opinion, the most important reason to hire a lawyer to assist with your disability case is to create a buffer between yourself and the SSA. At Liner Legal, we require all communication between SSA and our clients to go through our office. We ask that our clients call us with their questions instead of calling SSA, and we also review all of their disability paperwork before its seen by SSA. The reason our office does this is because frequently when Social Security sends paperwork or calls on the phone about a case, they may ask questions in a way that can be confusing to the average person.
Social Security will ask about activities of daily living. “Can you cook, clean, grocery shop, or other household chores?” Typically, people will simply answer “yes” because they are human and it is a necessity for them to find a way to cook and clean in their daily life. What people don’t realize is that by just saying yes that it can hurt their disability case. We ask our clients to switch their point of view and think of these questions in another way. Instead of asking “can you do this or that,” think of the questions as asking, “How do your impairments impact your ability to cook, clean, grocery shop or do other household chores?” Then explain how your disability affects your ability to complete these simple tasks. Only saying yes gives Social Security ammo to deny your case because they aren’t receiving the whole picture.
Besides handling the tricky communication piece, a lawyer is also someone you can trust to make sure appeals are timely filed, all your records are requested and submitted to SSA, and the case is properly prepared for an eventual hearing with an ALJ. Finally, and most important, time and time again studies have shown that a claim for disability is more likely to be approved with the assistance of a lawyer than without one.