Can You Receive Both Veterans Disability and Social Security Disability Income? How Do They Differ?

There are cases when you can receive both veterans benefits and Social Security disability benefits. It depends upon what type of veterans or Social Security benefits you now receive.

You can receive VA service-connected disability compensation and Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) at the same time, since neither program is needs-based and they are not offset by other income, or each other. However, VA pensions are income-based. So receiving Social Security disability benefits (SSDI) can reduce your monthly VA pension payments or disqualify you from the VA pension program. Likewise, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is income-based. Receiving veterans disability benefits can reduce your SSI disability benefits or disqualify you from the SSI program.

You can't receive both SSDI and retirement benefits. After you retire and begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits, Social Security will discontinue your SSDI.

How to Apply

The Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are two independent agencies that run two independent programs, and you must apply separately to each. You can apply to both programs at the same time.

It is often confusing to veterans that eligibility for VA disability benefits doesn't automatically qualify them for SSDI. The two programs define disability quite differently and have different application processes.

You can apply for veterans benefits online or by using VA Form 21-526, Veterans Application for Compensation and/or Pension. You can download this form at

You can apply for SSDI online, by phone, or in person at your local Social Security Office. You can locate the address and telephone number for your local Social Security office using the SSA's office locator.

When to Apply for Disability Benefits

Social Security. You can apply for SSDI as soon as your disability prevents you from working. Your eligibility for SSDI is based on your work history during the last 10 years. Generally, you must have worked full-time at least five of the last 10 years in order to be eligible. If you wait too long after you stop working before you apply for benefits, you may no longer be able to receive benefits.

Veterans compensation. Apply for veterans benefits as soon as you suffer from any disability that is linked to your military service.

How the VA and the SSA Determine Disability

The SSA requires that you be unable to work in order to receive disability benefits, which means you must be totally disabled, whereas the VA awards benefits whether you are partially or totally disabled.

To be considered disabled by the SSA, you must show that you are completely unable to perform any full-time work, and that your disability must be expected to last at least one year. It is all or nothing, you are either considered disabled and able to work, or you are not considered disabled at all.

The VA defines disability very differently. The VA requires that you prove that your disability stems from or was worsened by your military service, that you have a current disability, and that your current disability is linked to the illness or injury you incurred during service. But the VA awards benefits for partial disability based on a rating system; the VA system is not all or nothing.

How Monthly Payments are Calculated

VA awards disability payments based on a ratings system of 10-100%. A percentage is assigned to each disability based on how severe each disability is. These percentages are then combined (not necessarily added together). You receive a certain amount of monthly income based on your total percentage of disability and based on whether you are married or have dependent children.

Unlike the VA, the SSA does not have a ratings system. The SSA pays your benefits based on the wages you earned while you were working, including income you earned in the military.

VA and SSA Calculate Lump-Sum Payments Differently

The effective date for VA benefits is often, but not always, the date you filed your application for benefits. If you are awarded benefits, your lump-sum payment will typically be calculated based on the date of your application.

The SSA calculates retroactive payments based on the date your disability first prevented you from working, but in no case will a lump-sum payment go back any further than 12 months than your date of application. Usually this means a lump-sum payment from the SSA may be less than a similar payment from the VA, since the VA often takes much longer to decide claims.

How Long Does it Take to Receive Benefits?

It can take anywhere from six months (unusual) to multiple years to receive VA benefits. But if you are found eligible for SSDI benefits, you can begin receiving SSDI anywhere from a few months to more than a year after you first apply. You may receive a decision on your SSDI application even faster depending on when you served in the military and when you became disabled.

Speeding Up the Benefits Process

If you served in the military on or after October 1, 2001 and became disabled while on active duty, you are eligible for expedited processing of your disability claim with the SSA. Whether you became disabled while serving overseas or while serving on U.S. soil, you are entitled to this expedited process.

The SSA is supposed to automatically expedite your claim if you qualify, but the agency might not. When you apply, make sure to tell the SSA that you qualify, and request expedited processing. Do this by downloading and filling out the Critical Request Evaluation Form, I-2-1-95.

A few years ago, the VA launched an initiative to decrease processing times for certain types of claims. Read Nolo's article on fast-tracking veterans' disability claims to see if you qualify.

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