Disabled veterans may qualify for benefits from both the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). There are four kinds of benefits available to disabled veterans.
Below, find answers to some commonly asked questions about how these different programs work.
VA disability benefits aren't based on income, so you can receive VA disability compensation and SSDI at the same time.
If you're eligible for both, try to qualify for VA disability compensation and SSDI since they generally pay more substantial benefits than VA pension and SSI. (VA pension and SSI are needs-based, so you'll need to show that you are under a resource or income cap.)
It's important to remember that you can't receive both SSDI and retirement benefits at the same time. After you retire and begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits, Social Security will discontinue your SSDI.
The main difference between VA disability and SSDI is that while the VA uses a percentage rating to determine the degree of your disability, SSDI is black or white—you're either disabled or you're not.
In order to qualify for VA disability compensation, you'll need to prove the following:
The VA will assign you a percentage reflecting how much of your service-connected injuries are disabling. Veterans can receive disability compensation based on the percentage rating, which can range from 0% to 100%.
You don't need to have a 100% disability rating to receive disability benefits (most veterans don't). In many cases, even having a 0% rating can be a good thing—you've already shown that your disability was connected to your service, so if your injury or disorder gets worse in the future, you'll have an easier time getting compensation. For more information, see our article on filing for veterans disability benefits.
The SSA doesn't award disability benefits based on a percentage amount or "partial" disability. Under Social Security's rules, you're either totally disabled or not disabled.
You can receive VA service-connected disability compensation and Social Security disability insurance at the same time since neither program is needs-based and they are not offset—meaning the amount you get won't be reduced or otherwise influenced by other income (or each other).
But if you're receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits and VA benefits, the amount of SSI you receive monthly can be reduced—or even eliminated—as a result. Because SSI is based on need and has income requirements to qualify, your VA disability benefits could count as income if it's above a certain threshold.
Social Security classifies VA benefits as "unearned income" and deducts any money you receive from the VA (minus a $20 exclusion) from your SSI benefits. In 2023, the maximum benefit you can receive from SSI benefits is $914 per month. So if you're also receiving $400 per month in VA disability, Social Security will deduct $380 ($400-$20) from your SSI benefit, and you'll receive $534 in SSI.
Like SSI benefits, the VA pension is a needs-based program. VA pensions are paid to veterans with very little or no income and who meet certain age or specific disability requirements.
Receiving SSDI can reduce your monthly VA pension payments or disqualify you from the VA pension program. The VA considers all of your income and assets, as well as the income and assets of your spouse, when determining your VA pension eligibility. In 2023, the net worth limit to be eligible for a VA pension is $150,538.00.
For a veteran with no dependents in 2023, the maximum annual pension rate (MAPR) you can receive per month is $1336.41. So if you're also receiving $450 per month in SSDI, the VA will deduct $450 from your VA pension, and you'll receive $886.41 per month.
The MAPR amount increases for a veteran who is housebound or needs help with daily activities like dressing, feeding, and bathing. MAPR amounts are greater for veterans who have dependents (by approximately $1,750 per month).
You can apply for VA disability and SSDI as soon as you become unable to work.
You can apply for SSDI as soon as your disability prevents you from working, as long as your inability to work is expected to least a year.
Your eligibility for SSDI is based on your work history during the last 10 years. Generally, you must have worked full-time for at least five of the last 10 years to be eligible. If you wait too long after you stop working before you apply, you may no longer be able to receive benefits.
Apply for veterans benefits as soon as you sustain any disability linked to your military service. Service members can apply when they're in active service as long as they have an impending discharge between 180 and 60 days (through the Benefits Delivery at Discharge program) or within 60 days of discharge through the Quick Start claim process.
VA awards disability payments based on a rating 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) for a total percentage of disability. You receive a certain amount of monthly income based on your total percentage of disability and based on whether you're married or have dependent children.
Because Social Security doesn't use a ratings system, benefits are calculated differently. SSDI benefits are based on the wages you earned while working, including income you earned in the military. (In 2023, the maximum SSDI benefit payable is $3,627 per month, although the average is much lower, around $1,483.)
SSI benefits are based on any earned or unearned income you have that could offset the maximum payment, which in 2023 is $914.
The effective date for VA benefits is often the date you filed your application for benefits. So, if you're awarded benefits, your lump-sum payment will be calculated going back to the date of your application.
The SSA calculates retroactive payments based on the date that your disability first prevented you from working (with a retroactive cut-off date that's 12 months from the date of your application).
Usually, this means a lump-sum payment from the VA is larger than a lump-sum payment from SSA since the VA often takes much longer to decide claims.
It can take anywhere from six months (unusual) to multiple years to receive VA benefits. But if you're eligible for SSDI or SSI benefits, you can begin receiving them a few months to more than a year after you first apply. You may receive a decision on your SSDI or SSI application even faster, depending on when you served in the military and became disabled.
Not necessarily. The SSA used to value VA service-connected disability ratings, but since 2017, the agency hasn't taken them into account when determining whether a veteran is disabled under the Social Security disability rules. However, if you have medical evidence that was sufficient enough for the VA to give you a high (70% or greater) disability rating, there's a good chance that the same evidence could be enough for the SSA to find you disabled as well.
In the same manner, the VA won't automatically grant you disability benefits if you've already been found disabled according to Social Security. This is because the VA needs to know that your injury or illness is service-connected, while the SSA doesn't take that into consideration. But if you've established that your condition is related to your time in the military, having a favorable determination (an approval) from the SSA can be persuasive evidence to the VA.
Social Security has a Wounded Warriors initiative to decrease processing times for certain types of claims.
If you served in the military on or after October 1, 2001 and became disabled while on active duty, you're 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're entitled to this expedited process.
If you qualify, the SSA should automatically expedite your claim as a military service member, but to be safe, make sure to tell the SSA that you qualify for expedited processing in your initial application and request a Critical Request Evaluation Sheet to be included.
For information on expedited VA claims, read Nolo's article on fast-tracking veterans' disability claims.
The SSA and VA are separate agencies that run their programs independently. You must apply separately to each program, but you can submit your applications at the same time.
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.
Updated September 21, 2023