Dealing with a severe physical or mental health condition affects the entire family. It may seem even more hopeless if you have to deal with financial struggles on your own.
Social Security disability (SSD) benefits offer you an option for cash payments or medical coverage. However, due to the troubled economy and high unemployment rate, the Social Security Administration (SSA) is being flooded with claims. It’s more important than ever to understand the Social Security disability system and how it affects those who are divorced, separated, or widowed.
SSD Benefits Eligibility
When You’re the One Who is Disabled
If you can answer “yes” to the following questions, you may be eligible for SSD benefits:
- Do you have a severe physical or mental condition that makes you unable to work?
- Is it a disability that prevents you from working at all – not just your previous job?
- Has the disability lasted – or is expected to last – for at least one year? Or, is the disability life-threatening?
- Do you have an earnings record that shows you paid into the Social Security system within the past five years? People with a limited or nonexistent work history – perhaps your spouse or former spouse was the primary breadwinner – may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income benefits (SSI).
Nothing can happen without a diagnosis and proof that you suffer from a disability severe enough to prevent you from working. It’s critical that you attend medical appointments and follow through with the prescribed treatment plan.
When Your Late Spouse or Ex-Spouse Was Disabled – Benefits for Widows and Survivors
If you are a widow or widower, you may be eligible for Widow’s Benefits or Survivor’s Benefits through the Social Security disability system.
Widow’s Benefits – If the SSA considers you to be disabled, you can receive benefits beginning at age 50 if you meet the guidelines for eligibility and were married for 10 years or more. Your disability must have started before your spouse’s death or within seven years after his or her death. If your spouse was the primary breadwinner and you have a child under the age of 18, the child may be eligible to receive monthly payments since that source of money no longer exists. If there are no other special circumstances, widows and widowers can receive benefits beginning at age 60, even if they aren’t disabled.
Survivor’s Benefits – You may receive Survivor’s Benefits if your spouse or former spouse paid into the Social Security system and earned enough credits. You may qualify if you are:
- A widow or widower age 60 or older
- A disabled widow or widower age 50 or older
- A widow or widower who takes care of the child of the person who died (when the child is under 16)
- A former spouse, if the marriage lasted 10 years or more (it doesn’t matter if your marriage ended in divorce)
Under certain circumstances, children, adopted children, and dependent parents ages 62 and up may be entitled to benefits. Generally, you can’t receive these benefits if you remarry before age 60, unless the marriage ended in death, divorce, or annulment.
When Your Ex-Spouse is Disabled but Still Living
If your spouse is still living and he or she is disabled, and you get divorced, unfortunately you are not entitled to receive benefits – even if your ex-spouse was the primary breadwinner for the family.
However, if you have children under 18, they may be eligible to receive monthly payments through your ex-spouse’s SSD benefits. SSI benefits do not apply in this case.
Applying for Benefits
To get started, contact the SSA at 1-800-722-1213, visit www.ssa.gov to file online, or visit your local Social Security District Office. The process for applying for Widow’s or Survivor’s Benefits is the same as applying for SSD benefits.
If you are disabled and the SSA approves your application, your benefits are retroactive from the date you were evaluated as disabled. Note, however, that your SSD medical benefits do not kick in until the 29th month from the date you’re considered disabled.
What to do if Your Claim is Denied
Unfortunately, the government denies the majority of initial applications. But this does not mean you should give up.
You have only 60 days to appeal a denied claim. You can reapply after that time period, but the process starts all over again. The process for appealing the denied SSD claim includes a hearing, which can take up to two years. While anyone can represent themselves at an appeal hearing, this is the time you should consider contacting an experienced attorney to help you navigate the system.
Typically it takes a judge several months to issue a decision. If you disagree with the judge’s decision, you can move on to the Appeals Council. Lastly, you can pursue a case in Federal Court.
If you need help, find an experienced SSD attorney. Be sure to ask if they work on a contingency fee basis – which means they won’t collect money unless they “win” your claim.
Learning to Navigate the System
Whether you’re widowed, divorced, or separated, dealing with a disability can be especially stressful. You may be dealing with your disability alone, and you may be struggling to pay your bills. Or, you may be dealing with the death of your spouse or ex-spouse and be concerned about your financial security.
Knowing what to expect, which questions to ask, and when to enlist the help of an attorney can help you navigate the complex Social Security system.
Attorney Dennis Liotta, a partner at the law firm of Edgar Snyder & Associates, has over 20 years of experience and has helped people with physical and mental disabilities get the Social Security disability benefits they deserve. For a comprehensive overview of SSD, with answers to commonly asked questions, download a free guide at: http://www.edgarsnyder.com/ssd-guide.