Do You Have to Be Permanently Disabled to Get Social Security Disability?

You do not have to be permanently disabled to get Social Security disability benefits, but there is a durational requirement.

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Your injury or illness does not need to be permanent to get Social Security disability benefits or SSI (Supplemental Security Income). While many people who are approved for disability benefits continue to receive them until retirement age (at which time they can collect retirement benefits), there are some individuals whose conditions improve enough so that they can go back to work.

Short-Term Medical Conditions

There are some claimants (applicants) who apply for Social Security disability in the belief that they will only need it for a short time, such as while they are recovering from a liver transplant or a bone fracture, from which they are expected to fully recover. You can be approved for disability benefits only if your medical condition is expected to be disabling for at least one year. For some medical conditions, Social Security builds in a set amount of time you can receive benefits. For instance, you can get Social Security disability benefits for an organ transplant for one year.

Closed Period Applications

There are also instances in which a Social Security disability or SSI claimant will apply for disability benefits only to find that, during the application or appeal process (which can be quite lengthy), their condition has improved. The Social Security Administration (SSA) might discover the claimant's condition has improved because the claimant has gone back to work and is now making more than the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level. (For more information on how much you are allowed to earn and still qualify for benefits, see our article on substantial gainful activity.)

Can a disability claimant whose condition is no longer disabling still receive disability benefits? Yes and no. Claimants whose condition is no longer disabling will not be eligible for ongoing disability benefits, but they may be eligible to receive benefits for the time they were disabled and unable to work. This is known as a "closed period" of benefits.

In other words, if a claimant does not presently meet the SSA's definition of disability, but their condition did satisfy the SSA criteria at some point in the past (that is, their condition was severe, prevented them from working and earning above the SGA amount, and lasted at least 12 months), the claimant may qualify to receive a lump-sum disability benefit payment for that closed period. For more information, see our article on getting disability benefits for a closed period.

Total Disability and Social Security

Note that while permanent disability is not required to receive benefits, total disability is. Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are "all or nothing" systems. That is, unlike the veterans benefit system and workers' comp, in which claimants are awarded percentages of disability, to get Social Security disability benefits, you have to be 100% disabled. How this is defined is another story. Generally, Social Security's definition of total disability is the inability to do any kind of "substantial" work—however, this does mean you can some "insubstantial" work. For more information, see our section on how much you can work when you get disability.

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