What Happens to a Social Security Disability Case if the Applicant Dies?

If a disabled person dies before getting Social Security or SSI benefits, certain family members can pursue the claim.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law
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If a Social Security disability applicant dies while waiting to be approved for benefits, it may be possible for a family member to continue the claim and receive any benefits owed. Even if the disabled person never filed a Social Security disability claim, in some circumstances, a family member may file an application on his or her behalf.

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for a disability claimant (applicant) to die with a case pending. The process of applying for benefits and obtaining an approval can take anywhere from a few months to several years, depending on the wait time at the local hearing office and the number of appeals an applicant must pursue.

Due to the structure and function of each program, it is generally easier for a family member to continue a claim for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) than one for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Eligibility for SSDI depends on an individual's work record while the SSI program is designed for disabled individuals who are impoverished.

Let's look at Social Security's rules for proceeding with SSDI and SSI claims after the death of the claimant.

Continuing an SSDI Claim After the Claimant Dies

An SSDI claim doesn't die with the claimant. Social Security may decide even after a person has died that he or she should have been entitled to monthly SSDI benefits before death. SSA calls this situation an "underpayment." The following order of preference dictates who may collect an SSDI underpayment:

  • a surviving spouse who was living with the disabled person, or who was entitled to SSDI benefits on the person's record, during the month of death
  • any child or children entitled to disability benefits on the deceased person's record during the month of death, and
  • any parents of the decedent entitled to benefits on the deceased person's record during the month of death.

If none of the above relatives are alive, the deceased claimant's benefits will go to any surviving spouse, child, or parent, respectively, who doesn't qualify under the above criteria. Otherwise, the payments flow to the estate of the deceased person.

Starting an SSDI Claim After a Claimant Dies

What if an individual never actually filed for SSDI benefits before dying? A beneficiary has three months from the month of death to file a new SSDI claim on the deceased person's behalf, and up to six months if the deceased person had a "protective filing date" from previously contacting SSA about filing a claim.

Continuing an SSI Claim

Compared to SSDI claims, the rules regarding continuing SSI cases are much more straightforward but also more narrow. A surviving spouse who was living with the disability applicant at the time of the applicant's death, or within six months of the applicant's death, may continue an already-filed SSI claim. The residency requirement is waived if the surviving spouse receives SSI.

Parents of a child who has died with an SSI application pending may also collect an underpayment, as long as the parents resided with the child within six months of that child's death.

If an individual dies before filing an SSI claim, another family member usually cannot file a new SSI claim on the deceased person's behalf. The lone exception occurs when the deceased individual was given a "protective filing date" because he had contacted Social Security about starting a disability claim. In that case, a family member generally has 60 days from the protective filing date to file for SSI benefits.

When Would Disability Benefits Start and Stop Accruing?

In the case of SSDI, there is a five-month waiting period after a person's the disability onset date during which he or she is not entitled to monthly payments. Consider the case of a man who applied for SSDI in September 2013, claiming a disability onset date of July 15, 2013. If he dies before the five-month waiting period expires on January 1, 2014, the man's heirs wouldn't receive any benefits, even though the man met the definition of disability.

As the end of the five-month waiting period, benefits would start to accrue to the deceased person's relatives, and disability benefits would stop accruing upon his or her death. However, spouses and dependent children of deceased SSDI beneficiaries are usually eligible for survivors benefits.

SSI benefits don't accrue until the first full month after the claimant files the SSI application (or the first full month after the protective filing date). SSI benefits would stop accruing upon the claimant's death. Thus, if a person dies before starting an SSI claim, it only makes sense to file an SSI claim on the deceased person's behalf if there is a protective filing date. Even then, the succeeding family member can only expect to receive a month or two of SSI benefits.

How to Proceed with a Deceased Family Member's Disability Claim

You should send Social Security a copy of the death certificate along with SSA Form HA-539 "Notice Regarding Substitution of Party Upon Death of Claimant" and SSA-1724 "Claim for Amounts Due in the Case of a Deceased Beneficiary," both of which you can obtain from your local Social Security office. If your relative had a disability attorney handling his case, the attorney will be able to file these forms for you and guide you through the remainder of the disability process.

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