Once your application for Social Security disability benefits has been approved, you can potentially receive disability benefits up to the point at which you reach retirement age, unless there is a reason they should stop. (At retirement age, your benefits continue, but if you have been receiving SSDI, your monthly payments will become Social Security retirement income, and if you have been receiving SSI disability, your payments will become SSI for the elderly.) Here are the most common reasons that disability benefits are terminated before retirement age.
One possible reason why benefits might stop is that you start working or begin to earn too much money. SSDI and SSI are meant to provide benefits for people who do not work, so if you become able to earn a substantial income, this will probably affect your ability to collect disability. Generally, if you begin to make more than $1,180 per month (the "SGA" amount in 2018), your benefits will be suspended (blind people can make a bit more). However, there are programs where you can try working for a period of time without jeopardizing your right to collect benefits, called trial work. (For more information, see our section on returning to work.)
Your disability benefits can be stopped if you improve medically to the extent that you can no longer be considered disabled. Social Security disability and SSI recipients periodically have their cases reviewed every so often to determine whether or not their condition still qualifies them for disability payments. This review is known as a CDR, or continuing disability review.
A CDR will generally occur every three or seven years, though, in rare cases, reviews are conducted once a year. (This usually only occurs if, at the time of approval, the SSA notes that it looks as though a claimant's condition might improve at some point in the near future). For more information, see our section on continuing disability reviews.
However, since the Social Security Administration has backlogs of every sort (backlogs for disability applications, backlogs for disability hearings, and backlogs for disability reviews), it is usually the norm that continuing reviews of disability cases are not done on time. In other words, a review that is set for every three years may actually be done every fifth year.
If your medical records don't show medical improvement, your disability status, and the payment of benefits, will continue. And in fact, in most cases, benefits are continued following a CDR. The percentage of people whose benefits are terminated because of medical improvement is very low. This is because it is very difficult, in most cases, for Social Security to find that enough medical improvement has taken place so that the disability recipient is able to return to work.
Through my experience as a Social Security disability examiner and as a claims representative, I have observed a couple of things. First, most claimants who get approved manage to keep their benefits after each successive review of their claim. Second, it is harder to determine that an individual has had medical improvement if he or she was approved for disability benefits through an administrative law judge (ALJ) hearing versus being approved at the initial claim or reconsideration appeal levels.
There is a reason for this: ALJs have more flexibility in formulating their decisions than disability examiners, which means that many individuals who received their disability approvals at the ALJ hearing might not necessarily have been awarded disability under the rules and guidelines used to make decisions at the state disability agency (DDS, or Disability Determination Services). Even though a claims examiner may not agree that a recipient was ever disabled, unless there is proof of medical improvement in the medical record, disability benefits can't be ceased—except under certain exceptions. For more information, read our article on when you might fail a continuing disability review.
There are other reasons you may lose your disability benefits, depending on whether you receive SSDI or SSI. For more information, see our article on when SSDI and SSI benefits stop.
In conclusion, while no one is guaranteed a lifetime of disability benefits, in all likelihood, once a person has been awarded disability benefits, they will continue to receive disability benefits until retirement age, at which point their benefits will convert from the disability category to the retirement category. That said, if you try to keep your benefits by not telling Social Security when your condition has improved or when you start earning an income, you could be liable for repaying disability overpayments. For more information, see our section on reporting changes to Social Security.
By Tim Moore, former disaiblity claims examiner