Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits provide income when you can no longer work because of a disability. But SSDI isn't based on your expenses, so it's doubtful that your monthly disability payments will be enough to maintain the lifestyle you had when you were working.
So, if your disability check isn't enough to live on, is there anything you can do to increase your Social Security disability payments? The truth is, not much—but you're not completely without options either.
Here's what you need to know about how Social Security decides how much your disability payments will be and when your SSDI benefit might increase.
Before you applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits, you might have assumed that everyone got the same amount. But that's not the case. Like with Social Security retirement benefits, how much disability you'll get is based on how much money you made from work during your lifetime.
And that means disability award amounts can vary substantially. For example, let's say a worker in Austin, Texas became disabled at age 45 and is getting $956 a month in SSDI benefits. And a friend in Laredo, Texas, who was disabled at age 52, is getting $1,600 a month. That's a difference of $644 per month.
Why is there such a large difference in the benefit amount between these two friends? It's because of the way Social Security calculates disability benefits.
Your SSDI benefit amount is dependent on the income you made (and paid taxes on) over many years. The SSDI payment is determined according to a complex formula, but generally, the longer you work, the higher your benefit amount will be.
There's no guaranteed minimum SSDI benefit. And the maximum anyone can get is $3,822 per month (in 2024). But the average monthly SSDI payment is only about $1,537 per month.
In the above example, the disabled worker in Laredo appears to have worked longer than the friend in Austin. And he may have had higher wages. The substantial difference in benefit amounts between the friends is likely due to a difference in their lifetime earnings—the worker in Laredo must have paid substantially more Social Security tax over the years.
Curious about what your SSDI benefit amount might be? You can see your entire earnings history and the benefit amount calculations by logging into your My Social Security account. If you find an error, call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to request a correction. Your disability check should be the same amount you'd be able to collect at full retirement age (if you don't work again until full retirement age).
If you're collecting disability payments through Social Security's low-income program called SSI, or "Supplemental Security Income" (and not SSDI), your benefit amount isn't dependent on your past income. SSI pays a set amount—$943 per month for individuals (2024).
You can't increase your SSI payment, but it can be lowered if you're doing any of the following:
Some states pay a supplement—increasing the maximum benefit you could get. But most SSI recipients get around $600 or $700 per month, significantly lower than most SSDI payments.
(Learn more about how the SSI program works.)
Each year, the Social Security Administration raises benefit amounts to account for increases in the cost of living. The annual "cost-of-living adjustment" (COLA) is based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and is intended to account for inflation. So everyone collecting Social Security benefits gets a raise once a year (most years).
For example, 2023 saw one of the largest SSDI increases in 40 years—8.7%. This increase applied to both disability benefits and family benefits. The average monthly SSDI payment increased by $119 with this COLA. In 2024, however, the COLA adjustment was smaller, at 3.2%.
Learn more about Social Security disability cost-of-living adjustments.
Since SSDI benefits are calculated based on how much you earned from work and how much you paid in Social Security taxes, there's really no way to increase your own disability payment. But that doesn't mean there's no way to bring extra Social Security income into your household.
If you're disabled and collecting SSDI payments, the other members of your household might be eligible for family benefits (also called dependent or "auxiliary" benefits). The members of your household who could qualify for dependent benefits include your:
Your dependent grandchildren or parents might also qualify if you're supporting them. Each eligible family member could receive as much as 50% of your SSDI benefit amount in addition to your SSDI payment each month—up to a maximum family benefit amount.
At age 62, your spouse can start getting an early spousal benefit based on your earnings record. At full retirement age (67 for anyone born in 1960 or later), your spouse would get a full spousal benefit.
The full spousal benefit is generally 50% of your Social Security benefit amount. But if your spouse starts getting this benefit before reaching full retirement age, Social Security will apply early retirement penalties, reducing the 50% benefit amount.
Learn more about Social Security spousal benefits.
If you're disabled and eligible for SSDI benefits, your dependent children can also receive benefits based on your Social Security work record. To be eligible for benefits, your child must be unmarried and younger than 18 (19 if still in high school).
The child must also be your financial dependent and related to you in one of the following ways:
If eligible for auxiliary benefits, your child could receive up to 50% of your SSDI benefit amount. But if more than one family member is collecting benefits based on your record, that amount would be reduced to bring the total family benefit down to the maximum allowed.
Learn more about getting SSDI auxiliary benefits for your children.
If you're collecting SSDI benefits and you die, your spouse and other family members should be able to collect survivors benefits based on your work record. How much your spouse gets will depend on the following:
A disabled spouse can begin getting survivors benefits at age 50 and can get 71.5% of your benefit amount. Between age 60 and full retirement age, your spouse would collect between 71.5% and 99% of your SSDI amount. And at full retirement age, your surviving spouse would get 100% of your Social Security benefit.
A younger spouse can also sometimes qualify for a special survivors benefit called "mother's" or "father's" benefits, which pay 75% of your SSDI amount. To qualify, your spouse must care for your dependent child(ren) under age 16 or your disabled adult child.
Learn more about Social Security survivors benefits, including which family members can qualify.
Although there's not much you can do to increase your monthly Social Security disability benefit amount, there are some steps you can take to maximize your income. And it starts with the application process.
Almost everyone who applies for SSDI gets "back pay," covering the time it took to get approved for benefits. With SSDI, Social Security will pay up to a full year of past-due benefits before your filing date—or your protected filing date if you have one.
When you provide written notice that you intend to apply for SSDI or start an online application, you establish a protected filing date, and the sooner that happens, the more back pay you could get.
Learn more about how to establish a protective filing date.
If you're approved for SSDI benefits, you'll eventually qualify for health care benefits through Medicare. Your Medicare eligibility begins two years after your entitlement date—the date Social Security says you were first entitled to receive benefits. Under certain circumstances, you might be eligible for Medicare in less than two years.
Although Medicare can help with your medical expenses, it isn't free. Your Part-B premiums will be deducted from your SSDI payments. But if your income is low, most states will help pay your premiums.
Learn more about Medicare benefits for SSDI recipients.
You can earn a small amount of income while collecting SSDI, as long as it's not more than $1,550 per month in 2024 ($2,590 if you're blind). Earning more is considered substantial gainful activity (SGA), and Social Security won't consider you disabled if you can do SGA. But you can make more than the SGA amount without affecting your benefits during a "trial work period."
If you're getting SSI disability, you can't earn more than the maximum benefit amount ($943 per month in 2024). But Social Security doesn't count all of your income from work.
Learn more about working when you're on disability.
When Social Security notifies you that your SSDI claim has been approved, the notice will include how much your monthly benefit amount will be. If you think your monthly benefit award or the amount of back pay you're getting is less than it should be, you'll have 60 days after you receive your award letter to file an appeal. In this case, you'll likely benefit from talking with a disability attorney before you do. An experienced lawyer can review the facts in your case and can help you make the strongest case.
Learn more about the Social Security appeals process.
Updated December 29, 2023