Can You Lose Disability Benefits If You're Convicted of a Felony?

A felony conviction usually won't usually affect your ability to get disability benefits, but being in jail will.

By , Attorney · University of North Carolina School of Law

A felony conviction alone won't usually keep you from being approved for disability benefits through the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. Most people who are convicted of crimes can get Social Security benefits. Likewise, a conviction won't affect your dependents or survivors benefits through Social Security. But if you get sent to jail or prison, your benefits can be suspended during the time you're imprisoned.

Can Convicted Felons Collect Social Security Benefits?

The general rule is that a felony conviction has no impact on eligibility for Social Security or SSI benefits. There are a few exceptions to this rule.

You are not eligible for Social Security disability benefits (SSDI) if:

  • your disability arose (or was made worse) while you were committing a felony
  • your disability arose (or was made worse) while you were imprisoned in a jail, prison, or correctional facility for a felony conviction, or
  • you made yourself a widow or an orphan by killing your spouse or parent (this applies to Social Security survivors benefits).

But even if one of the above situations applies to you, it's worthwhile to apply for SSDI benefits. Even though you won't get cash benefits, you might be granted a period of disability that will "freeze" your earnings record for Social Security, which can prevent your eventual retirement or dependents benefits from decreasing because of the time you're off work.

How Does Incarceration Affect Social Security or SSI Benefits?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) won't pay benefits to those who are confined in a jail, prison, or other penal institution, for either a felony or a misdemeanor. Because your food, shelter, and medical needs are met during periods of imprisonment, you aren't eligible for benefits while you're incarcerated—unless you participate in an approved vocational rehabilitation program (a program that helps you return to work upon your release).

When Will Your SSDI or SSI Benefits Stop Because You're in Jail or Prison?

Your SSDI benefits will be suspended after 30 days of incarceration (unless you participate in a rehabilitation program). Your SSDI benefits will be reinstated the month following your release.

Your SSI benefits will be suspended after you are incarcerated for one full calendar month (unless you participate in a rehabilitation program). Your SSI benefits may be reinstated without a new disability application only if you are released from custody before your benefits have been suspended for 12 months. You must report to Social Security when you enter or leave an institution.

Do Fleeing Felons Lose Their Right to Social Security Benefits?

Social Security won't pay benefits to people who flee to avoid arrest or prosecution or escape to avoid jail or prison. Specifically, "fugitive felons" aren't entitled to benefits when they have outstanding warrants for any of the three following offenses:

  • escape from custody (NCIC offense code 4901)
  • fleeing to avoid prosecution or confinement (NCIC offense code 4902), and
  • flight-escape (NCIC offense code 4999).

These rules are known as the "fleeing felon" rules and were modernized in Martinez v. Astrue (settled in 2009). Social Security can't stop paying benefits to someone because they have a warrant for any other than the three offenses listed above.

Do Parole and Probation Violators Lose Their Rights to Social Security Benefits?

Parole violators aren't entitled to benefits during any month that they are violating the terms of their parole or probation. But Social Security can't stop paying benefits to someone solely because they have a warrant for a parole or probation violation. Social Security must look into whether the person actually violated parole or probation. (Clark v. Astrue, 602F.3d 140 (2nd Cir. 2010).)

Can Certain Crimes Decrease Your Social Security Benefits?

Convictions for certain federal offenses involving subversive activities, such as treason, sabotage, and similar crimes, can limit your eligibility for SSDI benefits. In these cases, courts are authorized to issue orders providing that some of the income you earned won't be used to calculate your Social Security benefit. Specifically, wages paid to you during or before the quarter in which the conviction occurred, or net earnings from self-employment during or before the taxable year in which the conviction occurred, can be excluded from the determination of your disability benefit amount.

Can You Apply for Disability Benefits From Jail, or After Being Arrested?

A convicted felon can apply for benefits while still imprisoned if the jail or prison has a pre-release application procedure. (The facility may also have an agreement with the Social Security Administration providing for pre-release applications, but an agreement isn't strictly necessary to use the pre-release procedure.) Without a pre-release procedure, a convicted felon can apply for benefits immediately upon release from prison or jail.

If There Is a Prerelease Agreement

You can use the Social Security Administration's (SSA) "prerelease procedure" to apply for disability benefits several months before you expect to be released, which will help you get benefits faster once you leave the facility.

To start the application process, you first need to let a staff member at your facility know you want to apply. The institution will then contact the SSA for you and advise the agency about whether your condition is likely to meet its requirements for approval. The SSA will work with the facility to gather your medical information for you. Your friends or relatives can also help you by letting the SSA know when your release is planned.

If There Isn't a Prerelease Agreement

If there isn't a prerelease agreement between your facility and the SSA, you'll need to call the SSA to apply. If you call them shortly before your release, the SSA will help you set up an appointment with your local SSA field office once you leave the facility. The SSA's phone number is 800-772-1213.

How Long Will it Take To Get My Benefits Once I'm Released?

The length of time it takes to get your benefits depends on your particular situation, but it can take as little as 30 days. Using the prerelease procedure will help you get them as quickly as possible. If you're denied disability benefits after applying for SSI using the prerelease procedure, you will need to appeal the disability decision like anyone else.

If your benefits are simply being "restarted," it will take less time. If your benefits were stopped for less than 12 months, they can be reinstated without a new disability application. But if you were incarcerated for more than a year, getting a new decision from SSI could take several months.

If you receive Social Security disability or SSI disability benefits, your benefits will generally be stopped when you begin serving a sentence pursuant to a conviction; this is true even if your sentence is served outside of a traditional prison facility.

Can You Get Disability If You Go to a Halfway House After Jail?

You can't receive disability benefits while you're in a halfway house (or "residential reentry center"), if that halfway house is controlled by your state's Department of Correction.

Similarly, if you were transferred from jail to a civil mental health facility (under a civil commitment in connection with a crime), you can't receive benefits until you've been released from the facility.

Finally, you can't receive benefits if you're enrolled in a work release or educational program as a result of your conviction, even though you may occasionally be outside a correctional facility.

On the other hand, you can receive your disability benefits if you are placed on parole or probation or while you're on home monitoring.

Updated February 25, 2023

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