What's the Difference Between Permanent Disability and Disability Retirement Benefits?

Permanent disability is a term often used in workers' comp claims and disability retirement benefits are offered to federal employees.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law

The short answer is that "permanent disability" is a status used in certain types of disability benefit claims, whereas "disability retirement benefits" are a specific type of benefit. Disability retirement benefits usually refers to the benefits that federal employees get if they become disabled, while the term permanent disability is most often used in workers' comp claims.

What Are Disability Retirement Benefits?

"Disability retirement benefits" are a type of benefit under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) and the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). (FERS replaced CSRS in 1987, but some federal workers and retirees are still covered under CSRS.)

If you're a federal employee or postal worker and you've become disabled, you might qualify for disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS if all of the following are true:

  • you've worked for the federal government for 18 months
  • you have a disability that keeps you from doing your current federal job
  • your disability is expected to last at least one year, and
  • the federal agency you work for can't accommodate your disability. (5 CFR Part 844.)

You don't need to be permanently and totally disabled to receive FERS benefits, you must be unable to continue in your current federal employment. Learn more about the eligibility requirements for federal disability retirement benefits.

What Is Permanent Disability?

A permanent disability is a mental or physical condition that affects a major life function long-term or for the rest of your life. For instance, losing your eye or having Parkinson's disease would be a permanent disability.

Permanent Disability Under Workers' Compensation

Permanent disability is a term used in workers' compensation to describe any lasting impairment remaining after a worker has:

  • been treated
  • had time to recover, and
  • reached "maximum medical improvement."

A permanent disability could be as severe as the loss of a limb or as moderate as a broken leg that healed but left you unable to walk on uneven surfaces.

Generally, a permanent disability is given a rating based on the severity of the impairment. Your permanent disability rating determines how much your workers' comp payment(s) will be. Because workers' compensation programs are state-regulated, how your permanent disability benefits are calculated depends on where you live.

Social Security and Permanent Disability

The Social Security Administration (SSA) doesn't generally use the term "permanently disabled" when evaluating disability claims. Your impairment must last a year or more (or be expected to last that long) to qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits.

There are some conditions that Social Security doesn't expect to be permanent but will still qualify for disability benefits. For instance, if you receive a lung transplant, you'd qualify for benefits for three years, but then you'd be expected to recover and not need benefits.

When Social Security expects an impairment to improve, the recipient receives an award letter with the notation: "medical improvement expected (MIE)." When Social Security expects an impairment to be permanent, the award letter has the notation "medical improvement not expected (MINE)."

If your case is labeled MIE, you might undergo a continuing disability review within six to eighteen months to see if you still qualify for disability benefits. But if your case is labeled MINE, you likely won't face a continuing disability review for seven years. And in most cases, you'll stop being scheduled for reviews after age 52.

(Learn more about how Social Security defines disability.)

Get Help With Your Disability Claim

There are important differences in the qualification requirements of each benefits program. For instance, the eligibility rules for federal disability retirement benefits under FERS differ slightly from those under CSRS. (Learn when you might need a federal disability retirement lawyer.)

And Social Security has different rules than FERS or CSRS. The SSA defines disability the same way for SSI and SSDI claims but has different financial eligibility requirements for the two programs.

If you're disabled, whether you plan to file for SSDI or workers' compensation, you'll need to understand the eligibility requirements of the disability program before you file a claim. That's why you might consider hiring a disability or workers' comp attorney, unless you have a slam dunk case. An experienced lawyer knows the rules and can help you build your strongest case.

Plus, working with an expert, like a disability attorney, can improve your chances of getting benefits—especially when you're applying for Social Security disability.

Updated November 22, 2023

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