When Veterans Can Get Social Security Disability Benefits

Disabled veterans can get Social Security disability benefits at the same time as VA disability compensation.

By , Attorney · Northeastern University School of Law

If you are a disabled veteran, you might be eligible to receive disability benefits from the Social Security Administration if you are unable to work full-time. Here are some questions vets frequently ask about applying for Social Security disability.

When Are Veterans Eligible for Social Security Disability?

You are only eligible for disability benefits from Social Security (called Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI) if you have worked full-time at least five of the last ten years. If you wait too long after you stop working before you apply for Social Security benefits, you may no longer be able to receive them.

Often you can receive Social Security disability benefits in addition to any disability compensation you are paid by the VA. On the other hand, if you have a VA pension, Social Security payments may put you above the program's income limits and disqualify you for your pension.

How Does Social Security Decide if I'm Disabled?

Social Security requires that you be unable to do any type of significant work in order to receive disability benefits. In contrast, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) awards benefits for partial and total disability, so you can still be able to work and collect VA disability compensation. To be considered disabled by Social Security, you must show that you are completely unable to perform any full-time work, and that your disability must be expected to last at least one year.

How Does Social Security Decide How Much to Pay Me?

Social Security calculates your monthly benefit based upon your earnings history in both civilian and military occupations. This is much different from VA disability compensation, where you are paid based on how severe your disability is. Social Security does not evaluate the severity of your disability, but simply makes a determination about whether your disability prevents you from working. If Social Security decides you can't work, then it uses a complicated formula to calculate your monthly benefit. Social Security does not use a ratings system like the VA does.

What if I Had a Dishonorable or Bad Conduct Discharge?

No matter what type of discharge you had from the military, you can qualify for Social Security disability insurance if your disability prevents you from working. Unlike the VA, a negative discharge does not bar you from receiving benefits.

What if My Own Conduct Caused My Disability?

All that matters for Social Security disability benefits is that you have paid sufficient paycheck taxes into the system and that you are found to be disabled and unable to work for at least the next twelve months. Bad conduct, including willful misconduct that caused your condition, will not prevent your receipt of benefits.

Likewise, there is no requirement that your disabilities be service-connected. Your disability could stem from an injury before service, an accident after service, or an illness or condition that arose at any time. Again, what Social Security is worried about is whether you are physically and mentally capable of working with your medical conditions. Social Security is not concerned about the circumstances under which your disability arose.

What if My Time on Active Duty Was Very Short or Wasn't During Wartime?

There is absolutely no length of service requirement for Social Security disability insurance. If you were hurt during a one-day stint overseas or while on active duty for training in the states, you still qualify for Social Security disability benefits. It doesn't matter when your period of service was or how long it was, because Social Security benefits are not related to your military service. Even though the program is administered by the federal government just like VA benefits, the two systems are entirely independent.

Will I Automatically Get Social Security Disability Since I Get VA Disability Compensation?

Many vets think that qualifying for VA disability benefits automatically makes them eligible for Social Security disability benefits. However, the two programs define disability quite differently and have different application processes, so just because you get VA service-connected compensation or VA pension doesn't mean you'll be approved for Social Security disability.

As of March 27, 2017, Social Security no longer needs to give any weight to a VA finding of disability, although the agency will consider any medical evidence shared by the VA. In the past, Social Security would generally give a substantial amount of weight to a VA approval of benefits if the VA had rated you 100% disabled or totally disabled due to being unemployable.

How Do I Apply for Social Security Disability?

You need to submit a disability application with Social Security, either online, by phone, or in person by going to your local Social Security office. You'll also need to fill out a disability report regarding your medical condition, and a work history report.

You can submit your own medical records from both the VA and any private doctors or hospitals where you have been treated over the course of the last year or so, or Social Security will request the records for you. It can help speed up your claim if you submit the records yourself.

Does Social Security Fast-Track Disability Decisions for Vets?

Some veterans are entitled to expedited processing of their Social Security disability applications. Those who served in the military after October 1, 2001 and became disabled while on active duty qualify for expedited processing. It doesn't matter whether you became disabled while serving overseas or while on U.S. soil, as long as you were on active duty. (For more information, see our article on expedited processing for wounded warriors.) In addition, veterans who've been given 100% permanent and total disability ratings are entitled to expedited processing of their disability applications. However, as with wounded warriors, this expedited decision making process doesn't guarantee any veteran disability benefits. Even veterans with a 100% P&T rating could be denied Social Security disability benefits if they don't meet Social Security's definition of disability (although this is not likely). Veterans who are paid at 100% disability rate because they qualify for "Total Disability for Individual Unemployability" (even though their disability rating is less than 100%) or who have a temporary disability rating of 100% (post-surgery, for example) will not qualify.

Social Security should automatically expedite your claim if you qualify, but the agency might not. When you apply, make sure you request expedited processing as a wounded warrior or 100% P&T veteran.

Should I Hire an Attorney?

You have the right to hire an attorney to help you file for Social Security or to represent you in your appeal. You will not have to pay your attorney unless you are awarded benefits, even if the case goes on for a long time. Your attorney will get paid out of any backpay you receive, and the attorney's fee is limited to 25% of your backpay, not to exceed $7,200.

If you're initially denied benefits and have to appeal, your chances of winning benefits increase if you have an attorney. (Here's why.) Some veterans disability attorneys also practice Social Security disability law, so if you or someone you know used a veterans disability attorney, you might ask if he or she will handle your Social Security disability claim as well.

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