The Social Security disability application process can take many months, even years. Unfortunately, many disability applicants die before they're awarded benefits. Some people are eligible for benefits but don't apply before dying and some applicants die during the many months it takes to get disability benefits approved.
In some cases, surviving family members and heirs can start a disability claim for someone who's died or continue one that's already open. Who could receive the potential benefits depends on which Social Security disability programs the deceased worker was eligible for.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) offers two basic types of disability benefits:
Here's what happens when a disability applicant dies before Social Security grants SSDI or SSI benefits, including when the applicant's surviving family member might be able to continue a claim that was already started.
SSDI benefits are based on the applicant's work record—how much Social Security (FICA) tax the worker has paid into the system—rather than poverty. Since SSDI benefits are essentially insurance benefits, Social Security is more receptive to family members filing and continuing posthumous (after death) disability claims.
There's almost always a potential beneficiary—or more than one.
There can be multiple "parties of interest" to a deceased worker's SSDI claim, including all of the following:
Any of these parties can pursue the SSDI application, appeal, or hearing—even if the person or agency isn't the primary beneficiary.
Before Social Security pays beneficiaries, the SSA will honor a few specific types of liens on the deceased worker's Social Security record. Those include liens for:
Next, Social Security will prioritize which beneficaries get paid first. Unless a court determines a beneficiary intentionally caused the applicant's death (in which case that person can't collect anything), SSDI payments are made to the following parties in order:
For example, if the deceased worker is divorced, the worker's minor children would be entitled to an equal share of any underpayment—whether the children lived with the worker or the ex-spouse.
Any beneficiary can file an application for SSDI for the deceased worker. But any such application must be filed on one of the following time frames:
But Social Security can refuse to take the SSDI application after the worker's death if either of the following conditions applies:
Anyone who might benefit from the claim is allowed to continue it, and even someone who wouldn't receive benefits—such as the applicant's mother or estate executor—can continue the claim. Why would someone who can't collect the underpayment pursue an SSDI death claim? There are a few people who might take such action, including:
Does Social Security notify you that a disability claim is pending after a relative's death and that you might benefit from a favorable SSDI disability determination? Sometimes, but not always.
Social Security won't spend any time looking for a beneficiary if there isn't an obvious one noted in the file—like a surviving spouse or children with a known address. And Social Security doesn't have to contact anyone—even obvious beneficiaries—if the underpayment (the amount the beneficiaries would get) is less than $50.
If Social Security doesn't send you a notice, you might still find out about the claim if you receive the applicant's mail. When a pending case is at the application or reconsideration levels, Social Security will continue to work on the claim until a decision is made, and the SSA will continue to send notices to the applicant's last known address.
If a disability appeal has made it to the hearing level when the applicant dies and a hearing hasn't taken place, you might be notified of the claim. The Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) will initiate an inquiry to find a substitute party to pursue the hearing.
Learn more about how to handle a disability claim after the applicant dies.
If the deceased applicant was already represented by a disability advocate—a lawyer or nonlawyer representative—that person continues to have the authority to file appeals on behalf of the applicant. The advocate can help identify and find beneficiaries and counsel them about their rights.
If the deceased applicant wasn't represented, a beneficiary could hire a lawyer to help with the following:
A disability representative can also look into other benefits and claims that Social Security might not discuss with beneficiaries. For example, if the deceased worker had a disabled child over 18, that child might be eligible for disabled adult child (DAC) benefits. An attorney could help prove the adult child's case.
There are special Social Security benefits available for some widows and widowers. You might be eligible for these benefits if:
A disability attorney can help with your disabled widow or widower benefit claim.
SSDI recipients become eligible for Medicare after 24 months on disability. When a last illness has been costly, any assets in an estate like bank accounts and real estate could be at risk because of the medical bills.
So, if a lawyer can establish that Medicare should pay those bills, it can actually help the deceased person's family more than receiving disability benefits would.
If the applicant wasn't disabled for long, Medicare benefits won't be available (unless the deceased worker had one of three medical conditions that expedite Medicare).
Sometimes an SSDI applicant chooses to file a new disability application after Social Security has denied a claim. And that can make a difference.
If the deceased applicant had a prior claim for disability benefits that wasn't appealed before the last one was started, a lawyer might be able to help get that claim reopened. Winning that initial claim could qualify the applicant for Medicare and get a larger underpayment for the beneficiaries.
Most lawyers will help explore how feasible it might be to file a Social Security disability claim after a worker's death or continue an appeal. Usually, you can get this kind of consultation at no charge or obligation. Working with a lawyer this way can relieve a family of at least one burden during a stressful and difficult time.
Learn more about how to find a qualified disability attorney.
SSI is a disability program designed to help those who haven't worked enough to qualify for SSDI, Social Security's disability insurance program. SSI pays a relatively small benefit to individuals who are disabled, blind, or over the age of 65 and who have little to no income or assets.
How Social Security handles an SSI claim after the applicant dies depends on where the person was in the application process.
You generally can't start an SSI claim for someone after the person dies—even if the applicant would have qualified for benefits for many months before death. This is because SSI doesn't pay retroactive benefits--benefits covering the time someone is disabled before filing an SSI application. So if you file an application after the person dies, there's no one who qualifies to collect a monthly SSI disability payment.
But, if a person contacted Social Security and made an inquiry about filing for disability benefits before dying, that establishes a "protective filing date." The applicant's spouse can file an application within 60 days of the protective filing date—longer if Social Security didn't send a "close out" notice advising the applicant when the protective filing period ended.
If a person with a pending SSI disability claim dies before benefits are awarded, generally, only a spouse who was living in the same household can pursue the SSI claim and collect money that would have been awarded to the applicant. Social Security calls that money an "underpayment" since the applicant wasn't paid what was due.
An exception to this rule exists for a spouse already receiving SSI. If that's the case, the surviving spouse doesn't have to be in the same household at the time of the applicant's death.
States that participate in Social Security's Interim Assistance Reimbursement (IAR) program can actually continue an SSI claim themselves, but only if all of the following are true:
Currently, 36 states and the District of Columbia have IAR agreements with Social Security.
A state can also pursue an SSI death claim to establish retroactive Medicaid eligibility. This allows the state to bill Medicaid for any past medical treatment costs that the state paid.
Updated April 21, 2023