The Social Security Administration (SSA) provides disability benefits for people who are expected to be completely unable to work for a long period of time. Unlike short-term disability insurance, workers' compensation, or veterans' benefits, Social Security doesn't provide temporary or partial benefits.
But the SSA doesn't assume that everybody who is disabled will always be disabled. While most people who receive disability benefits continue to do so until retirement age, some find that their health improves enough for them to go back to work. Or, some people have a condition that Social Security considers disabling for only a few years.
You don't have to be "permanently" disabled to qualify for disability benefits, but you must show you have a medical condition that has prevented you from working any job for at least twelve months. (One year is the shortest time period for which the SSA will pay benefits.) Any conditions that you recover from in under a year aren't considered disabling by the SSA.
Once you're awarded benefits, Social Security will periodically review your file to see if your condition has improved to the point where you could return to work. If you don't return to work full-time and the SSA doesn't find that you've recovered enough to do any jobs, you'll continue to receive benefits indefinitely.
When most people think of "permanent disability," they're likely picturing ongoing benefits. But disability benefits aren't always permanent. Social Security can end your benefits after a continuing disability review if your medical records show significant improvement in your health.
Social Security disability is total in the sense that you must show that you can't work full-time at any job in the national economy. Social Security doesn't consider you to be "30% disabled" or "50% disabled"—you either can work or you can't.
Practically, the agency does allow you to do some work and receive disability benefits at the same time, as long as you aren't earning at or above what the SSA calls substantial gainful activity ($1,470 per month in 2023). Any money that you earn below this amount isn't considered "work" for Social Security purposes.
You can receive benefits for what Social Security calls a "closed period of disability" if you aren't disabled any longer, but you had previously been out of work for at least a year due to your medical condition. Unlike ongoing benefits, a closed period of disability has a start and an end date. If the SSA finds that you were disabled for a closed period, you'll receive a lump sum of back pay.
Most people who receive benefits for a closed period initially file an application with the intention that they'll need ongoing benefits. But the disability determination process often takes several years, from the initial application to a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). By the time some people have the opportunity to speak to an ALJ, they've recovered enough for the ALJ to find that they could return to work. ALJs can award closed periods in these cases.
Updated February 3, 2023
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