Can I Get Disability Benefits After a Car Accident FAQ?

You can get Social Security disability after a car accident if your injuries have severe effects that last over a year.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School

When people get into car accidents, they can have many injuries that prevent them from being able to return to work. Below are some frequently asked questions about Social Security disability benefits from people who've been in car accidents.

I have injuries from an accident that will take several months to heal. Can I get Social Security disability benefits even though I should make a full recovery?

No, you wouldn't be eligible for federal benefits. Social Security disability benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), are federal programs that were created to help people who have long-term disabilities.

If you're filing for disability benefits after a car accident, in order to qualify for either program, you must have a disability that's lasted or is expected to last at least 12 months (or until your death).

A few states, including California and New York, have short-term disability programs that offer cash benefits. Check out our section on short-term disability benefits or contact your state's employment department to find out if your state offers temporary disability benefits.

I was in an accident and broke a few bones that aren't healing properly, which has affected my ability to work. Do I qualify for disability benefits?

It depends. If the broken bone is located in your leg and hasn't healed properly, leaving you with an inability to walk without help, you'll likely qualify for benefits. If the broken bone is located in your arm and hasn't healed properly or regained function despite surgeries, you could also qualify for benefits.

The SSA has two listings for fractures, one for leg fractures and one for arm fractures. Both require no solid union of the bone during healing.

To meet the listing for fractures in your thigh, shin, pelvic, or tarsal bones (foot), you must need a walker or two canes or crutches to get around (preventing you from using both of your arms effectively).

To meet the listing for a fracture in your arm, wrist, or elbow, you'd have to show that you're unable to use your arm for work activities (such as picking up and carrying things).

If you broke bones in other areas, you'd have to prove to the Social Security Administration (SSA) that you're unable to do any job—even the easiest type of job—because your ability to function and work has been hindered by the broken bones.

For more information on qualifying for disability benefits with a broken bone, see our article on getting disability benefits for bone fractures.

I was burned pretty badly in my car accident and I can't work. Can I get disability benefits for burns?

Possibly. Burns can take a very long time to heal and can cause significant permanent or long-term limitations on your ability to move and function. If you've had severe burns or soft tissue injuries (like muscle sprains or ligament tears), you might be able to get disability benefits if you're not able to work.

To meet the SSA's listing for a soft tissue injury or burn on your arm, leg, torso, face, or head, you'd need to prove both of the following:

  • you don't have functional use of the injured body part for at least 12 months (if face or head, the injury must impair your vision, speech, or ability to eat), and
  • surgery and other treatments are ongoing and haven't yet worked to restore your use of your injured body part(s).

Or, if you have widespread skin lesions (serious damage to your skin from burns) lasting at least 12 months, you can meet the listing by proving one of the following:

  • your ability to use both arms or legs (or one of each) is significantly limited
  • lesions on both palms severely restrict your ability to handle and finger objects, or
  • lesions on the soles of both your feet or in your groin area make walking extremely difficult or impossible.

Learn more about getting disability for soft tissue injuries and burns.

I developed constant neck pain after my car accident that hasn't gone away. My physician diagnosed me with whiplash. Can I get disability if I'm unable to work?

It's possible to get disability benefits for whiplash, though it's not easy to do. Whiplash injuries are generally expected to heal fairly quickly. But that's not always the case.

Whiplash can include injuries that damage the joints between the vertebrae, discs, ligaments, muscles, or nerve roots. Such injuries can lead to severe, chronic neck pain that makes it impossible to work.

To qualify for Social Security benefits after your car accident, your whiplash will generally have to include a neck or spinal injury that's visible on an X-ray or MRI. Some whiplash injuries (like nerve root compression) can cause significant, long-lasting pain and mobility issues, which might qualify you for disability benefits.

Also, keep in mind that the pain and limited motion from your whiplash has to have lasted or be expected to last at least 12 months to qualify for disability benefits.

Please see our article on whiplash and disability for more information.

I have a hard time remembering things and completing tasks after my accident. There's no way I can work. Can I get disability benefits after an accident that left no obvious injuries?

Possibly. Not all injuries are visible to others. In car accidents, head injuries aren't uncommon. Hitting your head can cause injuries to your brain.

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) can range in severity from a concussion with temporary amnesia to a permanent coma. A TBI can cause physical limitations like uncontrolled movements in your arms or legs or difficulty maintaining your balance.
But brain injuries can also affect your memory and ability to complete tasks without any obvious physical limitations. A TBI can affect your ability to:

  • think clearly
  • concentrate or learn new tasks
  • interact with others, or
  • control your emotions or behavior.

Even without physical limitations, if your loss of abilities is so severe that it's preventing you from working, you might be able to get Social Security disability benefits after a car accident.

Ever since my accident, I have had severe anxiety that affects me all day and I can't concentrate on work. Can I get disability benefits?

You might be able to get Social Security disability benefits after a car accident that left you with anxiety, but only if it's severe enough to prevent you from being able to work. Anxiety can take many forms, including:

  • overwhelming feelings of panic and fear
  • obsessive thoughts or unpleasant, intrusive memories
  • recurring nightmares or insomnia
  • irritability and anger
  • extreme fatigue
  • difficulty focusing, and
  • constant worry and hypervigilance (being on edge).

It's important to have a psychiatrist or psychologist determine whether you're suffering from general anxiety or something else. People who've been involved in serious car accidents also sometimes suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

See our section on disability benefits for anxiety-related disorders for information on when these disorders qualify for benefits.

I was hurt pretty badly in a car accident. None of my injuries is severe enough to meet a listing, but together they make it impossible for me to work. Can I get disability benefits?

You might be eligible for long-term disability benefits after a car accident even if you don't meet the requirements of an impairment listing from Social Security's Blue Book. The combination of your injuries might "equal" a listing, or, if you can prove you're unable to return to your previous work or do any other kind of work, you could qualify for benefits.

If your impairments don't equal a listing, the SSA will use your Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to determine how your impairments affect your ability to work. To determine whether you're disabled, the SSA might also consider the following:

  • your age
  • your education level, and
  • your work history over the past 15 years.

For more information, see our articles on what it takes to equal a Social Security listing and how the SSA decides if you can still work.

Updated August 9, 2022

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