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

What if I Change My Mind After Delaying Social Security Retirement Benefits?


What if I delay retirement but then become sick, making it unlikely I’ll live long enough to break even on my delayed Social Security benefits?

Answer: Fortunately, if you decide to delay collecting Social Security until sometime after your full retirement age, there’s a way to reverse this decision if you become ill and either need the money right away or expect to die sooner than you had hoped…but only if you plan ahead.

If you claim your retirement benefits at full retirement age, then immediately “suspend” collecting those benefits, you reserve the right to unsuspend the benefits at any time and start collecting them. The real bonus is that you can request that you receive all the benefit payments owed to you since your full retirement age. Social Security calls this “reinstatement” of your retirement benefits. You will receive a lump sum of the benefits you would have received if you hadn’t suspended your benefits. Of course, this lump sum won’t include the delayed retirement credits that you were hoping would increase your retirement benefits permanently by waiting until 68, 69, or 70 to retire.

This is a helpful option to have in case your finances suddenly change for the worse or you become seriously ill and your life expectancy is unexpectedly shortened. In this way, claiming and suspending your retirement benefits is kind of like having an insurance policy. You suspend the benefits in the hopes that you will live a long and healthy life and not need to access the funds until age 70 (or 68 or 69, as the case may be). But if you run into financial trouble and need money, or you find out you have a serious or terminal illness and aren’t likely to live long enough to recoup the Social Security benefits that you lost by delaying collecting them, you can access the money at any time, right away.

For more details on delaying retirement, suspending benefits, and reversing the decision, see Nolo’s  article on Changing Your Mind About Delaying Social Security Retirement.

Can I Get Interim Assistance (IA) while waiting for SSI?

Question: We were wondering if you could contact us to give us more information on (IA). My husband is waiting on his court date for SSI and we are in need of financial help. He has asked his lawyer and local Social Security office and they are clueless to (IA) information for some reason. We live in Indianapolis, Indiana and any insight you could provide would be greatly appreciated! Thank you so much.

“Interim assistance” (IA) is temporary benefit provided not provided by Social Security or the federal government, but by your state government. It’s usually administered by your state’s public assistance (welfare) agency or department of social services.

Interim assistance is really a type of loan rather than a cash benefit. When you apply for SSI disability benefits through the Social Security Administration, your state may front you some cash to pay for living expenses, and you promise to pay the state back when you are approved for disability benefits and you get your SSI backpay from the Social Security.

Not everyone gets approved for interim assistance – you must qualify financially for your state’s public assistance program and your state agency must find that there’s a strong chance you’ll be approved for SSI benefits. (Note that those who apply for only SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) are not eligible for IA.)

When you apply for interim assistance, you sign an “interim assistance agreement” or interim assistance reimbursement agreement.” That allows Social Security to take a portion of your SSI back pay to pay back your state for the interim assistance money.

Indiana does participate in the Interim Assistance Reimbursement (IAR) Program. Contact the Family and Social Services Administration, Division of Aging or Indiana’s Disability Determination Bureau to find out how to apply. The statue that governs IA in Indiana is IC 12-9-6-2. For more information, see our article on SSI’s interim assistance program.

Shoring Up Social Security to Save the Trust Fund

The McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative, a project chaired by former congressmen Jim McCrery (R-LA) and Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) and funded by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, has put out a call for innovative proposals to improve the Social Security Disability insurance (SSDI) program to prevent insolvency and provide long-term financial stability. Topics the initiative is calling for paper proposals on include the following:

  • Improving the Disability Determination Process
  • Modernizing Determination Criteria and Program Eligibility
  • Strengthening Program Integrity and Management
  • Improving Incentives and Support for Beneficiaries to Return to Work
  • Encouraging Disabled Workers to Remain in the Workforce
  • Improving SSDI Program Interaction with Other Federal, State, Local, and/or Private Programs
  • Moving beyond the Current “All or Nothing” System of Awarding Benefits
  • Encouraging Employers to Support Disabled Workers

I was surprised not to see any fiscal solutions on the list, such as raising the cap on Social Security (FICA) taxes, which currently taxes only the first $117,000 of a taxpayer’s income, at 6.2%. Income above this cap is not taxed for Social Security purposes. But perhaps this idea, which has been around for a long time, is too simple for the purposes of this initiative and not considered innovative enough. More details on proposal topics can be found here: http://ssdisolutions.org/call-papers. Proposals are due by November 1.

For those who want to read an overview on the future of Social Security, including why things aren’t quite as dire as they sound, read Nolo’s article on whether Social Security benefits will be there when you retire.

Can I Get My Student Loans Canceled When I’m on Social Security Disability?

Question: I received a heart transplant three months ago and am unable to work. I was just approved for Social Security disability. Will my student loans be automatically forgiven?

Answer: Unfortunately, no, student loan cancellation won’t be automatic – but an award of Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits can help.

The federal Department of Education (DOE) will cancel (“discharge”) federal student loans for anyone with a total and permanent disability (TPD). The DOE considers a TPD to be an impairment that prevents you from doing any significant amount of work for at least five years. As you can see, this is a tougher definition to meet than Social Security’s definition of disability, which only requires you to be unable to work for one year.

So how does the Department of Education use evidence of an award of SSDI (or SSI) to judge whether you should receive a discharge of your student loans? When the Social Security Administration (SSA) awards disability benefits, the agency puts you into one of three categories based on its expectation of whether your condition will improve. The category dictates when you will receive a “continuing disability review” to see if your disability is still present. Here are the categories:

  • Medical Improvement Expected (MIE). Your condition is expected to improve in the short term. Your case will be reviewed in six to twelve months.
  • Medical Improvement Possible (MIP). The SSA believes it’s possible your condition will improve, but it’s not sure when. Your case will be reviewed in about three years.
  • Medical Improvement Not Expected (MINE). The SSA expects that your condition will not improve and you will be permanently impaired. Your case will be reviewed in five to seven years.

Your review date will be included in your initial award letter (if it’s not, contact Social Security and request a Benefits Planning Query). Only those who are given a review date of five to seven years qualify for a total discharge of their federal student loans.

Social Security does not place heart transplant recipients into the Medical Improvement Not Expected (5-7 year review) category, so they are not automatically eligible for loan cancellation. Recipients of a heart transplant fall into the Medical Improvement Expected category, and in fact, the SSA’s disability listing for heart transplant recipients says that these individuals will be considered disabled only for one year following the surgery. After that, the SSA will reevaluate the individual’s condition to see whether they can meet the definition of disability another way. Our article on disability benefits for heart transplant recipients lays out the complications that a heart transplant might face and the ways they could get disability benefits after one year.

That said, heart transplant recipients may still be able to get their student loans cancelled. If your doctor submits documentation showing that you are unable to work and that your disability is expected to last for a continuous period of five years, the DOE may agree to cancel your loans. For more information on applying for a TPD discharge from the DOE, see our article on canceling student loans due to permanent disability.

If that doesn’t work, when it’s close five years since your heart surgery and you are still clearly disabled, you should qualify for a discharge of your loans. At that point, you can prove your continuing disability by having your doctor submit documentation that you are unable to work and that your disability has lasted for a continuous period of five years. In this case, any loan payments you made during the time you were receiving disability benefits (specifically, since you sent in your original SSA notice of award to the DOE) should be returned to you. However, there may be no need to make payments during this time if you get a temporary deferment or forbearance due to hardship and disability. See Nolo’s article on loan deferment and forbearance for more information.

What Can a Representative Payee Buy for Someone on SSDI?

Question: I have been searching the Social Security site and I can’t seem to find a list of what a Representative Payee can and cannot purchase for their friend with Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits.  Is there a list available, especially of what cannot be purchased?  “Use common sense” does not appear to be a very helpful answer.

Answer: After paying for the disabled person’s food, shelter, clothing, medical and dental costs, and any rehab expenses, the representative payee can spend disability benefit money on personal comfort items and recreation costs (such as outings, movie tickets, or magazine subscriptions). The disabled person does have the right to spend some discretionary money himself or herself, once the payee has made sure the person’s needs are met. (However, if there are drug or alcohol abuse issues, spending money should be given in small amounts and monitored as much as possible.)

As far as discretionary spending goes, Social Security evaluates what’s reasonable spending on a case-by-case basis. The payee really needs to know how the individual is living and what his or her needs are. This is why Social Security doesn’t publish a list of personal comfort, recreation, or entertainment expenses that are and are not allowed. What’s reasonable spending for some would be unreasonable for others. For instance, because a payee for a person receiving $700 in SSI benefits per month will have trouble paying for the person’s food, shelter, and clothing costs as well as any medical and dental expenses, purchasing a flat-screen HDTV for $300 would probably not be seen as reasonable spending, but allowing an SSDI recipient who receives $2,000 per month to make the same purchase might be reasonable, especially if the person enjoys spending a lot of time watching television and isn’t able to get out much.

Here are a few more details for representative payees:

  • A representative payee can use benefit money to pay past-due bills for the beneficiary (the person who is eligible for Social Security benefits) — if the beneficiary’s current needs are paid for.
  • If there is money leftover after meeting the beneficiary’s current needs and some discretionary spending, it must be saved for the beneficiary in a separate bank account.
  • The payee is not allowed to take a fee for payee services from the monthly benefit (unless the payee is a nonprofit organizational payee with written approval from Social Security to charge a fee).
  • Each year, the payee will have to fill out a form accounting for how the benefits were spent. Social Security will send the form to the representative payee each year.

You can some more information in our article on what a representative payee can and cannot spend money on. The key to remember is that spending must always be in the best interests of the beneficiary.

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