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FAQ

What are the types of benefits available through the Social Security system and who is eligible to receive these benefits?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) administers several programs. In addition to the most well-known program, Old Age, Retirement and Survivors' benefits, Social Security administers two types of disability benefits.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits are potentially available to persons who have worked and paid taxes into the Social Security system over a period of years. In order for a person to potentially be eligible to receive SSDI benefits, an individual must either have been out of work for one full year or more due to illness or injury, or the person must be expected to remain out of work for at least one full year.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are the second disability program administered by the SSA. To be eligible to receive SSI, an adult individual must be found unable to work for at least one year, just as with SSDI, but eligibility is not based upon having worked and paid taxes into the Social Security system. Rather, a person must meet certain financial and U.S. residency requirements in addition to being unable to work to be eligible for SSI. Additionally, children with very severe health problems causing marked limitations in functioning may be entitled to SSI benefits depending upon their parents' financial situations.

Individuals can be potentially eligible for benefits under both the SSDI and SSI programs depending upon a number of circumstances.

What is the amount of money I can receive from SSDI or SSI benefits?

For SSDI benefits, the amount of the cash benefit that can be received every month depends upon the amount of money that has been earned and taxes paid over the years. Benefits can be as low as only a few hundred dollars every month or up to a few thousand dollars per month and are subject to annual increases. The Social Security Statement that most wage earners used to receive on an annual basis now can be can requested from the SSA or can be obtained online at www.ssa.gov. The Social Security Statement sets forth an estimation of your benefit amounts under the early retirement, full retirement, survivors' and disability programs.

For SSI benefits, the amount of monthly income is subject to a maximum benefit amount that is increased by an annual cost of living adjustment. Assuming that an individual is entitled to the monthly maximum benefit amount, he or she can be entitled to an amount that has reached $721 per month in 2014, and a couple who both receive SSI can be eligible for a shared maximum benefit amount of $1082 in 2014.

Does my income or assets impact the amount of my monthly benefit?

For a person eligible to receive SSDI benefits, overall wealth does not factor into the monthly benefit amount. You can win the lottery and still be entitled to your monthly Social Security Disability Insurance check. However, receipt of Workers' Compensation benefits and certain governmental pensions can reduce an individual's monthly SSDI benefit depending upon a number of factors. The income and assets of a spouse do not impact your SSDI benefit amount.

For SSI benefits, subject to certain exceptions (such as one home and one car), an individual cannot have assets (called "resources") worth $2,000 or more and still be entitled to a monthly SSI benefit. The "resource limit" for a couple is $3,000. Income from other sources, including free room and board as well as cash, will result in a reduction of the monthly SSI benefit amount. Additionally, the assets and income of a spouse can adversely impact upon the amount of benefits to which an SSI recipient may be entitled.

Are my children entitled to a benefit from Social Security if I become disabled?

Children of a disabled person receiving SSDI benefits are generally entitled to a monthly benefit amount based upon the disabled parent's earnings until the age of 18 years (or to 19 years if the child is still in high school). While the benefit amount varies depending upon the amount of time and earnings upon which taxes have been paid, children of a disabled person receiving SSDI benefits can expect to share a benefit amount of nearly half the amount the parent receives on a monthly basis. However, where the disabled person's monthly SSDI benefit amount is very low, the children may not be entitled to any benefits.

Children of a disabled person who receives SSI are not entitled to any benefit based upon the parent's being disabled.

What types of health insurance might I receive through SSDI or SSI?

Persons who receive SSDI benefits become entitled to Medicare health insurance in the 25th month of entitlement to receipt of SSDI benefits. The government deducts from monthly SSDI benefits a monthly charge for the cost of Medicare health insurance. If the individual's benefit amount is relatively low and the person is otherwise financially eligible, an individual may be entitled to have the monthly Medicare charge paid by the state in which they reside and could be eligible to receive Medicaid as well.

Persons who receive SSI benefits are usually eligible to receive Medicaid health insurance, which insurance is usually administered at the state level (as one would get from Welfare).

Can I still work if I receive SSDI or SSI benefits?

An individual who is still working on a full-time basis is not disabled as a general rule of thumb. However, SSA has rules that do allow persons to work to a limited extent and still remain eligible to receive disability benefits. These rules can be rather complicated, but the general principle is that if you are earning $1070 per month or more from work for the year 2014 (for persons who are blind, the limit is $1800 per month in 2014), and you have not already been adjudicated as being disabled by the SSA, you are likely not going to be eligible to receive disability benefits.

Do I need an attorney to apply for SSDI or SSI benefits?

While there is no rule requiring anyone to obtain an attorney to assist in the pursuit of SSDI and/or SSI benefits, it is a wise decision to hire an attorney to assist in the prosecution of a disability claim. As an experienced disability lawyer, I assist clients at all levels of the disability adjudication process, becoming involved in cases at the very beginning by filing the application(s) and undertaking representation immediately before hearings. It is a good idea to obtain the assistance of an experienced Social Security Disability attorney as early as possible in the process to represent you in the prosecution of your case.

How much does the attorney charge for an attorney's fee?

The overwhelming majority of cases are handled on a contingent fee basis, meaning that the lawyer is not paid until such time as the case is won. The standard fee is 25 percent of the past-due benefits up to a maximum of $6000, whichever amount is less. Once the case is concluded, the client receives 100 percent of the ongoing monthly benefit amount. The attorney has no claim to monies beyond the "past-due benefits."

As an example, if the amount of your benefits from when you are first found entitled to benefits up through to the conclusion of your case is $20,000, the fee will be $5,000. If the past-due benefits amount to $24,000, the fee will be $6000. In the event that the case is appealed all the way up to the Federal Courts, the standard fee agreement used by attorney Lichtman provides that the attorney may file a petition for an amount that is greater than $6000, but not greater than 25 percent of the past-due benefits.

If I work after I am found disabled, must I report that to the Social Security Administration?

All work performed for pay must be reported to the Social Security Administration! Whether you are paying taxes or not (and you certainly should be), any work performed for pay must be reported to the Social Security Administration. Failure to do so could jeopardize your entitlement to benefits.

What is the maximum amount of money I can earn per month and still be found entitled to benefits?

"Substantial gainful activity" is the amount that Social Security has set as the cut-off amount for disability. In 2014, substantial gainful activity level earnings are $1070 per month ($1800 per month if you are blind). Accordingly, for 2014, if you are earning more than $1069.99 per month, you are not disabled under Social Security's rules no matter how bad your health problems are and even if you are making this amount by working only part-time hours. This is a basically a hard, solid rule, though the amount that constitutes substantial gainful activity is subject to potential increases every year.

How many weeks are there in a month?

While people tend to think of a month as having only four weeks, there are actually greater than four weeks in a month. Think about it. There are 52 weeks in a year and only 12 months in a year. Those extra four weeks in every year must go into the 12 months. Accordingly, you should contemplate that there are nearly four and a half weeks in a month or that in some months you will have five weeks of pay when you consider what are your monthly earnings.

How much money can I make without jeopardizing my benefits?

While Social Security does allow you to have some earnings while still being entitled to receiving benefits, such as during a "trial work period," having earnings can jeopardize your benefits. A trial work month is any month in which you have greater than $770 in earnings ($770 is the monthly amount of earnings set for a "Trial Work Month" for the year 2014, and that amount is subject to annual increase). While you can make greater than $770 per month and still be entitled to receive benefits during a trial work period, I suggest that having earnings at trial work period levels of $770 or more raises a "red flag" on your claim for possible review of your disability and your entitlement to benefits. Accordingly, if you earn approximately $720 per month or less, you are less likely to risk losing your benefits than if your earnings are higher.

How much can I earn if I do not want to get into a trial work period?

The safe answer is that you will sometimes have five weeks of pay in a month and therefore if your pay is not greater than $150 per week, you should have no trial work months in a year (5 weeks x $150 = $750) and be able to earn approximately $9000 in a year.

Can I earn $180 per week without jeopardizing my benefits?

Any month in which you are earning greater than $1080 (in 2014) does constitute a trial work month and therefore it is possible that your case could come up for review based upon your earnings. While you will be making less than the substantial gainful activity limit of $1080 per month at $180 per week, it is within the realm of possibility that Social Security could review your case and determine that your disability has ceased medically, thereby terminating your entitlement to benefits. Higher earnings increase the likelihood of a "red flag" on your account.

In conclusion, while there are inherent risks in working at any level while receiving Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, if you and your health care professionals feel that working at some level is in your best interest but you do not wish to jeopardize your benefits in any way, your safest bet is to earn not greater than $150 per week.

Social Security does have programs to assist people on disability with attempting to return to work. These programs are too complicated to be addressed here and I recommend people contact Social Security directly about programs available to persons on disability who wish to attempt to return to work.

For more information about "substantial gainful activity" and "trial work period," go to ssa.gov, the official website of the Social Security Administration, and search for these issues.