Why Can't I Get Emergency Disability Payments From Social Security?

Social Security makes hardship payments to disability applicants only under some very specific emergency circumstances.

By , Attorney
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Question:

Why would Social Security Administration put information on their site about emergency payments if they're not actually available? My lawyer says I can't get Social Security hardship payments and I shouldn't read this stuff. I suffer from major depression, carpal tunnel, and polyarthritis among other health issues. I've been waiting eight months waiting for a disability hearing date.

I am being foreclosed on and I don't even have a hearing date yet, to negotiate me being allowed to make modified payments to the mortgage company. I was also not approved for a dire need situation even though SSA was sent a foreclosure proceedings letter from the mortgage company. All this just makes the major depression worse, and I'm now dealing with homelessness with three children. Even a one-time emergency payment could save us from losing our house.

Answer:

I'm so sorry to hear of your struggles. Unfortunately, Social Security makes emergency hardship payments to disability applicants only under some very specific circumstances.

First, only SSI applicants who are experiencing extreme hardship qualify for emergency assistance payments. (If you qualify only for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, you can't receive emergency payments.) Extreme hardship means that without the payment, you risk an immediate threat to your health or safety, such as a lack of food, clothing, medical care, or shelter. Second, only SSI applicants who qualify for "presumptive disability benefits" are eligible for SSI emergency assistance before their monthly benefits start.

Let's look at the various ways that Social Security Administration (SSA) might pay out benefits early.

Presumptive Disability Benefits

If you have a disability that is clearly disabling, and Social Security agrees that there's a high likelihood that your claim will be ultimately approved, the SSA could grant you presumptive disability (PD) payments, or presumptive blindness (PB) payments (if you are blind or have very low vision).

Presumptive disability benefits are available only for a few specific disabilities that are so severe that Social Security can almost assume you'll qualify for disability benefits, based on your initial Social Security application or interview alone.

Some of the illnesses or conditions that often qualify someone for presumptive disability payments are:

  • AIDs
  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease)
  • Down syndrome
  • amputation of the leg at the hip
  • total blindness
  • total deafness
  • stroke with continued difficulty walking or using your hands
  • terminal illness with a life expectancy of six months or less
  • end-stage renal disease (ESRD) requiring chronic dialysis
  • spinal cord injury (SPI) with the inability to walk without a walker or bilateral handheld device, and
  • severe intellectual disability or autism with the complete inability to take care of yourself (such as toileting, dressing, eating).

Presumptive disability benefits can be paid out in one of three ways:

  • regular monthly SSI payments for up to six months
  • an emergency advance payment, or
  • a one-time immediate payment.

Monthly PD payments can last for up to six months. When the SSA approves or denies the claim, or six months have passed, whichever is earlier, the presumptive disability benefits will end. If the SSA ends up denying your claim, you won't have to pay back the money. For more information, read our article on presumptive disability benefits.

Emergency Advance Payments of SSI

The SSA sometimes makes one emergency assistance payment to new claimants who are facing a financial emergency. The SSA can make an emergency payment to someone who is:

  • due SSI benefits that they haven't received yet, or
  • approved for presumptive disability.

The maximum emergency payment is $841 (the federal benefits rate for 2022), plus any state supplementary payment.

The SSA will subtract the emergency advance payment from the SSI payments due to you. Usually, the emergency payment is taken from the backpay you'll receive when you're approved for benefits. If the back pay amount is less than the emergency payment, the SSA can subtract the emergency payment from your first six months of SSI payments.

Immediate Payments of SSDI or SSI

The SSA can make immediate payments of up to $999.00 to those who face a financial emergency. It's usually the field office that makes immediate payments, but only in very critical cases.

The SSA can make an immediate payment to someone who is:

  • due SSI or SSDI benefits that they haven't received yet
  • approved for presumptive disability, or
  • already receiving SSI and/or SSDI payments but their payment is delayed or lost.

The SSA will subtract the immediate payment from the first regular monthly SSI payment due to you.

Interim Assistance

Most states offer interim assistance for disability applicants for those who meet public assistance criteria and are severely disabled. Read more about this in Nolo's article on state interim assistance and other government assistance.

Your Situation

Depression, arthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome, even in combination, will not qualify for presumptive disability payments or emergency payments, though it never hurts to ask when you first apply.

Likewise, writing a dire need letter to move up your hearing date only works in drastic situations.

The good news is that, since your income is low and you've exhausted your assets, you will likely meet the technical qualifications for SSI.

It sounds like your lawyer didn't want to explain why you wouldn't qualify for emergency payments and isn't interested in helping you learn about disability benefits on your own—or at the least, doesn't want you to misunderstand information put out by Social Security. If you want an easy-to-understand guide to disability benefits, see if your library has Nolo's Guide to Social Security Disability, which explains the ins and outs of the process.

Updated May 31, 2022

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