Handling a Disability Claim or Appeal After an Applicant's Death

Learn about continuing a Social Security Disability claim -- or starting one -- on behalf of someone who has passed away.

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Gavel and Scales

The process of applying for disability benefits, from initial disability application to an acceptance or denial of the disability claim, can take months and sometimes even years. Because many people who apply for either Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) suffer from very severe impairments, it is not uncommon for a disability applicant to die after filing a claim but before a disability award notice is given. Similarly, sometimes a person who would have been eligible for disability benefits (because he or she wasn't working due to disability) did not file a claim before he or she died.

Depending on the situation, certain people may be allowed to file a disability claim or pursue an open claim based on the deceased person’s disability. Which categories of people are eligible to pursue these claims, and in which disability programs, is set by federal law and is discussed in more detail here.

After Death Claims for SSDI vs. SSI

It is easier for a beneficiary to pursue or begin an SSDI claim after the applicant’s death than it is to pursue or begin an SSI claim.

SSDI Claims

Many types of family members can be beneficiaries to an SSDI claim, and any of them can file a claim or continue an open claim after the applicant’s death. The order in which the SSA will pay SSDI benefits to the beneficiaries is somewhat complicated, but in general, payments will be made to: the surviving spouse, surviving children, surviving parents, and the legal representative of the deceased’s estate. For more information on the order of beneficiaries, see our article on the details of disability claims after death.

There are time limits in which a family member or other beneficiary can file a new claim for a deceased person; see below.

SSI Claims

As a general rule, if a person dies before filing a disability application for SSI, another person cannot file an SSI claim on the deceased’s behalf. However, if the deceased person had contacted the SSA about filing a claim before he or she died, a beneficiary has up to 60 days after the deceased person made the inquiry (called the "protective filing date") to start an SSI disability claim.

If a deceased person had already filed an SSI claim but the Social Security Administration (SSA) had not made a decision at the time of the applicant's death, the deceased’s spouse can pursue the claim. For more information on who can pursue an open SSI claim, see our article on the details of disability claims after death.

Continuing a Claim Filed Before Death

If there is an open SSDI or SSI disability claim (that is, if the deceased person started a claim before he or she died), in some cases the SSA will notify the beneficiaries that there is an open claim they may be entitled to. For instance, if a spouse or child is listed on the disability application, the SSA will most likely notify them that there is an open disability claim.

But if it is not very clear who the beneficiaries are from the disability application itself, the SSA will not spend a lot of time trying to figure out who the beneficiaries are. For more information on when the SSA will try to contact beneficiaries, see our article on the details of disability claims after death.

Filing a Disability Claim on Behalf of a Deceased Relative

As discussed above, a family member of a person who was eligible for SSDI but did not apply before death can file a new disability claim on behalf of the deceased person for back payments of disability benefits. Here are some guidelines about when disability benefits will be paid.

Filing Deadline

Depending on the situation, when a person dies before filing a claim for SSDI, a family member may have up to six months or longer to file a claim if the deceased person had contacted the SSA about filing a claim (Usually this happens when the person called the SSA to inquire about applying; the SSA records this date of first contact as a "protective filing date".)

Even if the deceased person had not contacted the SSA about filing a claim, a family member will have three months after the month of death to open an SSDI claim.

Closed Period of Benefits

The period of disability benefits that can be paid is from the onset of the disability and when the person died. This is called a "closed period" of benefits because it has a known beginning and ending date. (Usually, a closed period of benefits end when the applicants was able to go back to work. For more information, see our article on the Social Security disability closed period.)

Death During the Waiting Period

First, some basics: The SSDI program has a five-month waiting period for benefits; a person will not receive SSDI payments until he or she has been disabled for five complete months. That means if the onset date of the disability is January, the recipient would not receive benefits until June.

If a person died before filing a disability claim and you file a claim on the deceased person’s behalf, the claim will be denied if the SSA finds that the onset of the deceased’s disability was five months or less before the date of his or her death. However, if there is a chance that Social Security could find the applicant's onset date was earlier than five months before death, the claim could be worth pursuing because there could be a

Similarly, if a disability applicant filed an SSDI claim and died less than five months after his or her disability onset date, nobody will be able to receive the deceased’s benefits. That is because if the applicant was still alive, he or she would not be able to receive benefits for five months after the onset of the disability either. However, if the applicant applied several months after the onset of disability and then died, there should be at least a few months of SSDI benefits available to the beneficiaries.

Durational Requirement for Disability

One of the requirements that must be met in order to be eligible for disability is that the applicant’s impairment has to have lasted 12 months, be expected to last 12 months, or be expected to result in death.

If the applicant died before he or she has been affected by the impairment for 12 months, the SSA looks at whether the impairment was the cause of death. If the impairment was the cause of death, even if the deceased person had not been impaired for 12 months, the 12-month durational requirement is waived. But if the applicant died from something unrelated to the impairment, such as a car accident, the durational requirement still needs to be met: the deceased person will need to have been disabled by the impairment for at least 12 months before death.

Obtaining Medical Evidence

The SSA will need to look at all of the applicant's relevant medical evidence and work history to determine whether the deceased person was disabled and eligible for disability, just like the SSA would do in a situation where the applicant was not deceased.

Survivors Benefits

If the deceased person was eligible for SSDI or Social Security retirement benefits, his or her spouse and children will be eligible for survivors benefits. This is different from filing or continuing a claim on behalf of the deceased person. Family members of the deceased person file for survivors benefits in their own nae. For more information, see our article on survivor benefits.

In addition, Social Security pays a one-time death benefit of $255 to the surviving spouse, or if there is none, to surviving children who are receiving Social Security dependents benefits.

How to Pursue or File a Claim

Pursue an open claim. When an applicant dies after filing a disability claim, if your relationship to the applicant is one that allows you to collect as a beneficiary, you should report the deceased person's death to the SSA by calling 800-772-1213. Then you'll need to submit a Social Security Administration (SSA) form called Notice Regarding Substitution of Party Upon Death of Claimant (Form HA-539) and a copy of the applicant’s death certificate from the proper local authority.

File a new claim. If you are going to file a new claim, contact the SSA at 800-772-1213 and tell them you'd like to file a claim for SSDI benefits on behalf of a deceased person. It is important to remember that if you are going to file a new claim after someone has died, you have only three months from the time of death to do so. Or, if the disabled person called or wrote a letter to Social Security indicating that he or she intended to file a disability claim, you have six months from the date of death to do so.

Survivor and death benefit. When you contact the SSA, a field representative can also explain to you whether you qualify for survivors benefits and let you know whether the deceased person is owed the one-time death benefit.

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