About: Beth Laurence

Beth Laurence is a long-time Nolo editor and author. Beth is editor of Nolo's Guide to Social Security Disability and Social Security, Medicare & Goverment Pensions and the website popular website disabilitysecrets.com. Beth holds a law degree from University of California, Hastings College of the Law, a B.A. degree from Boston University (Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude), and is a member of the California State Bar. While at Hastings, she helped persons with disabilities in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco apply for and win Social Security and SSI disability benefits from the SSA. Over the last decade, she has been active on the board of directors of several local environmental and educational nonprofit organizations.

Recent Posts by Beth Laurence

If I recover after surgery, can I still get disability benefits for the two+ years I couldn’t work?

Question: I first applied for Social Security disability in June of 2012. I had a hearing in January 2014. The judge ordered a second hearing scheduled in July 2014. It was cancelled because the judge was unavailable. It is now scheduled for October 2014. I am scheduled for surgery in September 2014. If the surgery is successful obviously I won’t be eligible for disability. Is there any way to petition for the backpay only?

Answer: Yes, you can receive Social Security disability benefits for what’s called a “closed period.” If, at your October 2014 hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) finds that you are able to return to work, but that you were disabled before your surgery, you can still get backpay from the beginning of your disability entitlement date (I’ll clarify this below) until the day you are physically able to return to work.

You do not need to file a separate petition for a closed period. While some applicants apply for a closed period of benefits, most of the time, applicants apply for ongoing disability benefits. If a judge finds an applicant was disabled but is no longer, Social Security will simply award the applicant with a closed period of benefits.

Some experts say that’s it’s easier to qualify for a closed period of benefits, since Social Security isn’t committing to pay you benefits for an open-ended period of time. If your surgery is successful, you may want to talk to a disability lawyer about whether it makes sense to inform the judge that you are seeking benefits for a closed period only.

Your disability entitlement date depends on whether you qualify for SSI or SSDI (Social Security disability insurance). If your application was for SSI, you would be entitled to be paid for your entire period of disability – from the month following your application date to the date you are able to return to work. If you applied for SSDI, you would be paid only for five months following the onset of your disability until you’re able to return to work (due to SSDI’s five-month waiting period). Note your entitlement date can be no earlier than one year before your application date.

To learn more about closed periods, see my article on closed periods of disability.

How will getting married affect my SSI payments?

Question: I’m getting married and am over 60 years old. How will this affect my SSI payments? My husband-to-be is 66 years old and is on Social Security disability and has retirement benefits of less than $500 a month.

Answer: If you get married while receiving SSI, your payment is likely to be reduced because of your husband’s income. Why? Because most of your husband’s Social Security income will be “deemed” to belong to you. Social Security uses a complex formula to come up with what your new SSI payment would be – I’ll show you how it works.

First, know that anytime a spouse’s income is more than $361 per month, that income is subject to deeming. ($361 is the amount that Social Security presumes is necessary for your spouse’s own food and shelter needs, believe it or not.) If you have a minor or disabled child, another $361 will be “saved” for that child, meaning your spouse’s income could be as much as $721  per month without any income being deemed to you. But you didn’t mentioned having an adult disabled child at home, so I assume it would just be you and your husband living together after you’re married, making your husband-to-be’s income subject to deeming.

To figure out what your new SSI payment would be, you would take your husband-to-be’s income and add it to any income you get each month (you didn’t mention whether you have any income beyond SSI, so I’ll assume not). Let’s say your joint income is $500, since you mentioned your husband-to-be’s Social Security check is around $500 (I assume your husband’s disability payments have recently converted to retirement payments, since you can’t receive Social Security disability payments after full retirement age). You then subtract $20 from that amount, and what’s left is the spousal income that is deemed to you ($480).

You then subtract $480 from the SSI income limit for a couple (not for an individual) to come up with your monthly benefit. The SSI income limit (and monthly benefit rate) for a couple is $1,082 in 2014. So after subtracting $480, the $602 remainder is what your new monthly benefit would be. This is less than the $721 SSI benefit that you may have been receiving ($721 is the standard federal benefit amount). Note that these calculations would change if you were receiving more money because your state adds a state supplement to the SSI payment.

Or, in case your husband-to-be has income besides Social Security (you didn’t say), your SSI payment would be reduced even more. For instance, if your husband-to-be also was receiving $300 from another source (not counting any money from an IRA or company pension), you would have to subtract that from the couple’s income limit as well, leaving you with an SSI payment of only $302. If your husband-to-be has other unearned income of more than about $600, your SSI payment would probably be eliminated altogether.

Why can’t I get emergency disability payments from Social Security?

Question: Why would Social Security Administration put information on their site about emergency payments if they’re not actually available? My lawyer says I can’t get them and I shouldn’t read this stuff. I suffer from major depression, carpel tunnel, and polyarthritis among other health issues. I’ve been waiting eight months waiting for a disability hearing date.

I am being foreclosed on and I don’t even have a hearing date yet, to negotiate me being allowed to make modified payments to the mortgage company. I was also not approved for a dire need situation even though SSA was sent a foreclosure proceedings letter from the mortgage company. All this just makes the major depression worse, now dealing with homelessness with 3 children.

Answer: I’m so sorry to hear of your struggles. Unfortunately Social Security makes emergency payments to disability applicants only under some very specific circumstances. First, only SSI applicants who are experiencing extreme hardship qualify for emergency payments. If you qualify only for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, you can’t receive emergency payments. But it sounds like your income is low and you’ve exhausted your assets, so you will like qualify for SSI.

Second, only those who qualify for presumptive disability benefits are eligible for emergency payments. Presumptive disability benefits are available only for a few specific disabilities that are so severe that Social Security can almost assume you’ll qualify for disability benefits, based on your initial Social Security interview or application alone.

Some illnesses or conditions that often qualify for presumptive disability payments are AIDs, ALS, Down syndrome, amputation of the leg at the hip, total blindness, total deafness, stroke, and severe intellectual disability. Depression, arthritis, and carpel tunnel syndrome, even in combination, will not qualify for presumptive disability payments or emergency payments, though it never hurts to ask when you first apply. Likewise with a dire need letter, which can be helpful in moving up a hearing date, though dire need letters seldom work, as you saw yourself.

Most states do offer interim assistance for disability applicants for those who meet public assistance criteria and are severely disabled. Read more about this in Nolo’s article on state interim assistance and other government assistance.

It sounds like your lawyer didn’t want to explain why you wouldn’t qualify for emergency payments and isn’t interested in helping you learn about disability benefits on your own – or at the least, doesn’t want you to misunderstand information put out by Social Security. If you want an easy-to-understand guide to disability benefits, see if your library has Nolo’s Guide to Social Security Disability, which explains the ins and outs of the process.

I have CHF, bradycardia, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, acid reflux, and sleep apnea; can I get disability?

Question: I had a heart attack in November 2012 and I went back to work after being told I needed a pacemaker. In March of 2013, my heart rate went to 40 and I was hospitalized for a few days and then sent home. It did it again in June and […] they took me to surgery and gave me a pacemaker. The cardiologist says my bottom chamber was blocked. I was diagnosed with CHF, bradycardia, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, acid reflux, and sleep apnea. My blood pressure will not stay stable – it’s been like that for years — my doctor says my blood pressure was controlling my heart. I am taking Carvedilol 2×day, Lisinopril-Hctz, Potassium, Norvas, and Nexium. I can’t work anymore; can I file for disability?

Answer: If your pacemaker implant was successful, it may not help you much in getting disability. (See my earlier blog post on pacemakers and disability for more information.) In general, Social Security is less interested in diagnoses and more interested in how and your day-to-day functioning is limited. You didn’t mention how you are actually limited in functioning, and the only way to get disability for heart failure without proving that your limitations prevent you from doing any job is to meet Social Security’s disability listing for CHF. If you’ve had three (or more) episodes of acute congestive heart failure over the past year that required extended emergency room treatment or hospitalization, Social Security should grant you disability benefits for meeting the CHF listing without even needing to look at whether your daily functioning is limited. Having failed an exercise stress test can help you meet this listing as well.

But, assuming you haven’t been hospitalized for CHF since your pacemaker implant, you’re more likely to get disability benefits by proving to Social Security that your activities are so limited that there isn’t any work you can do. Ask your doctor what New York Heart Association (NYHA) Functional Classification you fall under: Class I, II, III, or IV. (Class I patients have few symptoms and no limitation in ordinary physical activity while Class IV patients have severe limitations and experience symptoms even while resting). This will give you an idea where you stand, as far as the severity of your limitations. Social Security is more likely to find Class III and IV patients as unable to work due to the severity of their symptoms.

But the way to prove to Social Security that your limitations are too severe for you to work a full-time job is not with your NYHA class but by getting your cardiologist to fill out a functional capacity form saying what you are not able or allowed to do (such as not being able to walk for more than one hour per day or not being able to lift more than 25 pounds) as well as what you are capable of doing (such as being able to sit upright for six hours to eight hours per day).

If your doctor’s form or medical records do prove that you have severe limitations or restrictions, this limits the number of jobs Social Security can say you are able to do, making it harder for Social Security to find you “not disabled.” But if Social Security finds you can do sedentary work (a desk job), you won’t be found disabled unless you don’t have the skills to do sedentary work and you’re over 50 (and you can’t return to your previous work because of your limitations or doctor’s restrictions). Social Security also has to consider how the combined effect of all of your conditions limit your abilities, so make sure you have documentation of all of your conditions when you apply.

Social Security has rejected plenty of applicants who have pacemakers, CHF, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions, so you may want to consult a Social Security disability attorney for help in getting disability benefits.

Can I get disabled widow’s benefits?

Question: My husband of thirty five years died at age 65. He was collecting Social Security. I’m 58, so I’m not eligible for retirement yet, but I can no longer work due to a bad hip and back problems. Someone told me I could get disabled widow’s benefits?

Answer: As long as you became disabled within seven years of your husband’s death and you fit Social Security’s definition of disabled, you should be able to get disabled widow’s benefits (DWB). Disabled widowers receive 71.5% of their spouses’ primary insurance amount, but you may receive less since it sounds like your husband was collecting early retirement benefits.

To get benefits before age 60, you have to apply for disabled widow’s benefits and prove to Social Security that you have a disability that prevents you from working any full-time job, for at least a year. You may want to read Nolo’s articles on disability for back problems and disability for hip problems to see if you would qualify as disabled.

Once you turn 60, your benefits would convert to “aged widow’s benefits,” which are like widow’s retirement benefits. These benefits are also sometimes referred to as surviving spouse benefits or spousal survivor benefits.

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