If my injury didn’t happen at work, are any benefits available besides welfare or SSI?

Question: I hurt my back badly and I can’t do my job anymore. Unfortunately the injury was on the weekend and not at work, so I can’t get any compensation or time off work for it. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m afraid I won’t be able to feed my family. What happens if I can’t pay my mortgage? I don’t want to have go on welfare or food stamps or SSI; I want to provide for myself. And don’t I have to become destitute and lose my house before I go on SSI anyway?

Answer: I’m sorry to hear of your injury. Your anxiety is natural — most people’s initial reaction to a disabling injury is the fear that they’ll never be able to work again and won’t be able to provide for their family. Fortunately, the Social Security Administration provides insurance against this type of situation. Many people think Social Security just provides retirement benefits, but if you are injured and unable to work for the long-term, you can start getting your Social Security benefits early. You can actually collect the same amount as you would at full retirement age.

This part of Social Security is called Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and everyone who has paid FICA taxes (or self-employment taxes) for a number of years has it. It’s amazing how many people pay for this insurance but don’t know about it; they mistakenly think their only option is SSI, which is only for those with very low income (though to answer your question, SSI recipients can keep their house and car and still receive benefits). You shouldn’t be uncomfortable applying for Social Security Disability; it’s an insurance program you pay for in case something like this happens.

The maximum SSDI benefit this year is $2,640 this year, which is not too shabby, but to earn this amount, you must have worked a number of years earning a fairly good salary. Most people receive much less from SSDI; the average is around $1,200 per month. However, your family may also be able to get benefits if you’re found disabled. If you have a minor child, he or she can receive 50% of your benefit amount, and if your spouse is caring for your child or is of retirement age, he or she can receive 50% of your benefit amount (but if more than one dependent receives benefits, there’s a family maximum benefit that will limit the amount of benefits your family can receive).

The downside is that, unless your injury is very severe and clear cut (easy to prove with objective medical tests), it can take a long time to get a decision from Social Security. While you wait for a decision, you may be able to get a loan modification or forbearance on your mortgage or get other forms of temporary assistance.  And if you eventually get approved, you’ll be paid back benefits to the date you became unable to work, which add up to a significant lump sum. But be forewarned, it’s not easy to qualify for SSDI; Social Security must find that there is no full-time job you can do (even a sit-down job), for at least a year. To find out if your injury may qualify, you may want to read Nolo’s article on getting disability for back problems.