Veterans who receive or are eligible to receive VA compensation for service-connected medical issues may be qualified to receive Social Security Disability Insurance, also known as SSDI. A second Social Security benefit, Social Security Insurance, offers government funds to help those in need (with or without military service).
These benefits are completely separate. The VA and the Social Security Administration have their own qualifying criteria, payment guidelines, and benefits. But your VA payments may affect your Social Security benefits.
How does VA disability pay affect Social Security Payments? The answer depends greatly on which Social Security disability benefit you are applying for. Does a veteran need to worry about having one benefit or the other diminished, cancelled, or revoked because they qualify and apply for both? It’s crucial before filling out application paperwork that you know how VA disability benefits can affect your SSDI payments and vice versa.
What Are SSDI And SDI?
SSDI, also known as Social Security Disability Insurance, is offered to those who have qualifying disabilities or conditions regardless of whether they have served in the United States military. SSDI is a federal-level benefit you earn after working long enough–after having earned 40 credits.
How are the 40 credits calculated? According to the Social Security Administration (SSA) those credits are earned by your work and payments into the Social Security fund (via federal tax withholding) for a maximum of four credits per year. The credits are based on your total earnings during the year and the requirement to earn those credits is subject to review and change.
Some may earn more credits than they can use in a lifetime, but this does not increase the level of benefit or payment amounts.
Social Security benefits (including SSDI but not limited to it) have medical requirements and non-medical criteria. Those meeting the non-medical requirements are paid benefits when it is determined their medical issues are expected to last a minimum of one year or result in the death of the patient.
Social Security Insurance, also known as SSI, is similar to SSDI in some ways, but is a need-based benefit and subject to income caps. Such caps mean that if you draw VA disability pay but not military retirement pay, you may qualify for SSI.
However, the Social Security Administration official site advises veterans that those approved for a VA pension “will not qualify to receive SSI because the pension amount is higher than the SSI payment amount,” exceeding the income cap.
Quick Breakdown Of SSA Benefits
- Earned by working/paying into the SSA system
- Four credits per year must be earned
- SSI is a benefit that is reduced by other forms of income/compensation (such as VA disability benefits) that exceeds program guidelines
- SSDI is a program that is not reduced by VA benefit payments
Social Security Disability Claims
The Social Security disability claims process is quite different from the VA in several ways, the least of which being that you do NOT have to prove that your disabilities are service-related. Your status as a veteran does not affect your claim, and the nature of your military discharge is not taken into consideration.
That is important for those who have punitive discharges who may or may not qualify for VA medical benefits. Social Security payments do NOT depend on whether your discharge was characterized in a certain way.
Social Security disability requires the applicant to submit proof of a physical or mental health issue resulting in a reduced capacity to work “at a substantial gainful level” which may be quantified by a specific earnings amount.
That amount was listed in 2016 as being roughly $1,300 of income per month, and is listed here only as an example of how these rules have functioned in the past. To determine the current level of “substantial gainful” employment, you will need to look at the Social Security Administration official site.
But that’s not the only requirement, a second part to be mindful of is that your condition must be disabling for at least 12 months or must be such that it will “end in death.”
Some Background On VA Benefits Compared To Social Security Disability
VA compensation for medical conditions, injuries, and other issues is conditional. The VA must determine that your medical issues are service-connected or service-aggravated and award a disability rating on that basis.
VA disability pay requires the veteran to submit medical documentation, evidence (including photos and letters from those who observe the veteran’s disabilities), civilian care records, etc. A VA medical claim is reviewed by the VA. Compensation is awarded on a scale of percentages (round numbers from 0% to 100% disabled) and culminates in a maximum award of 100% disability.
Quick Breakdown Of VA Disability Benefits
- Veterans go through a VA-directed medical review
- Veterans are rated on a percentage scale for disabilities and conditions that affect the ability to live and work
- Compensation is subject to review
- No income caps or asset caps to receive the benefit
The VA has complex criteria for awarding disability benefits. You must not have a dishonorable discharge in most cases (punitive discharges may be reviewed on a case-by-case basis), and you must submit a formal claim.
The VA system is unlike the Social Security system in this way; to apply for Social Security disability payments you must have a minimum period of time on the job and have paid a minimum amount into Social Security through your payroll taxes.
The VA does not require such financial contributions from payroll, nor does it require you to have worked within the last five or ten years. Drawing Social Security payments, however, requires you to have worked a certain amount within the last five to ten years.
This requirement is subject to change due to federal law and other variables. Check with the Social Security Administration for the most current guidelines.
VA Disability Award Amounts
The VA awards disability percentages in groups of ten, so from 0% to 10%, 20%, 30%, etc. on a graduating scale, as the VA official site terms it. Veterans can never be awarded more than 100% disability. In cases where there are multiple disabilities the percentages are added together but can never be cumulatively more than 100% total regardless.
The VA claims process takes time; some veterans may find it faster to get signed up for Social Security disability benefits, but it’s not necessary to decide which to apply for first as a general rule. There are always exceptions to that, but since these two programs (VA and Social Security) are completely separate, applicants are subject to the waiting times required due to demand and other factors.
Expedited Processing For Those With VA Disability Ratings At 100%
Some veterans who possess a VA rating of 100% permanent and total disability may qualify for expedited Social Security claims. Be sure to ask about this when applying for SSA options and make sure you self-identify on all application paperwork as a 100%-VA rated disabled veteran.
Other vets may qualify for help, too. Any veteran with “disabling mental or physical health injuries” on active duty on or after October 1, 2001 are eligible for expedited SSI/SSDI application processing. This does not need to have occurred during combat but the issue must be noted on the SSI/SSDI application.
Drawing VA Benefits And SSA Benefits
Veterans may be permitted to draw both VA and SSA benefits, but depending on the SSA program you enroll in, you may or may not have your Social Security benefit amount reduced dollar-for-dollar by the amount of your VA disability pay (subject to a small exemption). Those drawing SSI may risk benefit reduction if they don’t meet income caps; those drawing SSDI are not at risk.
With or without the benefit reduction, it can be helpful to have a VA disability rating established when you apply for SSA benefits such as SSDI or Social Security Income payments. Not in every case, but in some very important circumstances this can be a big help.
If you apply for both VA disability benefits AND Social Security disability benefits, will the amount of either be reduced because you draw both?
The key to understanding this issue to is recognize that Social Security comes in two different options: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). One program allows you to draw VA disability pay with no penalty, while the other features a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the amount of Social Security payments based on the amount of the VA disability payments.
SSI Payments Are Affected By Your VA Disability Pay
SSI is considered a “need-based” benefit and applicants may be subject to monthly income caps to qualify. Applicants who exceed the monthly income caps will not qualify–INCLUDING monthly income that is exceeded due to disability payments to you by the VA.
At the time of this writing, Social Security Income features a $20 “general exclusion” which means the first $20 dollars of your VA compensation is excluded from the dollar-for-dollar reduction in SSI based on your VA benefit amount each month. VA benefits are classified by the Social Security Administration as “unearned income” that does not come from a paying job.
Under this rule, if your VA disability pay is $250, minus the $20 general exclusion, your SSI benefits would be reduced by $230.
SSDI Payments Are NOT Affected By Your VA Disability Payments
SSDI payments are not reduced by “unearned income” such as VA disability payments. Your VA and SSDI payments will be sent to you unaffected by how much you qualify for under VA medical disability compensation.
Tips About VA Compensation And Social Security
- SSDI and SSI are not intended to provide a full living wage; the Social Security official site itself advises that in 2019 alone, Social Security paid an average monthly disability benefit amount “barely enough to keep a beneficiary above the 2018 poverty level” and any additional assistance you can apply for is crucial.
- If you have the ability to apply for VA benefits first, it can help to do so (when possible) if you already have a 100% disability rating from the VA. Some vets cannot do this, but those who can should take advantage of the option to have their SSDI or SSI benefit application expedited as described above.
- VA compensation and military retirement pay combined may render some applicants ineligible for SSI, but SSDI compensation may still be possible.
- Your financial need will determine which Social Security program you qualify for when claiming disability benefits.
- VA rules for disability pay require the veteran to establish or provide proof that establishes that the medical issue occurred on active duty or was aggravated by it.
- SSDI and SSI are federal programs, but not limited to the military.
- VA disability compensation is limited to the service member, but some VA benefits are payable for spouses, caregivers, and other family members. Be sure to ask about these.
VA disability ratings may be reviewed and adjusted if the condition(s) get better or worse. These adjustments can affect your eligibility for other disability benefits. Don’t hesitate to explore your options for expanded benefit payments from the Social Security Administration if you think your basic ability to qualify for SSDI or SSI has changed.
This is very important in cases where a veteran’s condition improves and there is substantial reduction in VA benefits. For any need-based benefit subject to an income cap (that includes the amount of your VA compensation) a reduction or increase in VA payments can affect your ability to qualify for your current payment amount.
What You Need To Apply For Benefits
In both cases (VA and SSA) you will need medical documentation to support your claim. For SSA applications you may be required to provide copies of your medical records, discharge paperwork, tax records or other proof of income, and more. For VA disability benefits you will need to furnish military records, medical records, proof of discharge, and schedule appointments as directed by the VA in order to be screened for your claim. Your Social Security Number, birth certificate, and other important documentation may be required by both agencies.
Qualifying For One Does Not Qualify You For The Other
The VA and Social Security Administration have completely separate processes and requirements for getting benefits such as these. Just because you are approved for one program does not mean you will qualify for another and just because you draw benefits from one does not mean you will automatically get the other. Each must be applied for separately and approved separately.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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