What Veterans Should Know About Filing for Social Security Disability

The SSA and VA systems of disability benefits are separate and quite different.

By , J.D. · The Colleges of Law
Updated 2/03/2023

Disabled veterans can collect Social Security disability benefits and Veterans Affairs (VA) disability benefits at the same time. This means disabled vets will usually find themselves dealing with the Social Security Administration (SSA) at some point.

Many vets may be surprised to learn how different the two systems are. In this article, we'll discuss the main aspects of the Social Security disability system as well as the differences that exist between the VA and SSA.

How Does Social Security Disability Work?

Disability applicants ("claimants") file for benefits at a Social Security field office or online and receive an initial decision within three to four months. (Veterans with service-connected disabilities can have their cases expedited by asking Social Security to include a Critical Request Evaluation Sheet in their application.)

After the initial application is submitted, the file is then assigned to a disability claims examiner. The claims examiner gathers the claimant's medical records and, along with a medical consultant, decides whether to approve or deny the claim.

If the claim is approved, the claimant is considered 100% disabled and will receive Social Security disability benefits. Unfortunately, initial applications are usually denied.

If the claim is denied, the claimant may follow the disability appeal process and get a reconsideration review of their case. Once the reconsideration decision is issued and they are (more likely than not) denied again, the claimant can then appeal once more to have their case heard before an administrative law judge. Depending on the local hearing office, it may take a year or longer to have a hearing date set. Asking Social Security to expedite your case for a service-connected disability can help cut the wait time.

How Does the Social Security Administration Determine Disability for Veterans?

The way the Social Security Administration defines disability is very black-and-white. You're either totally disabled or not disabled at all. You also must show that your disability or condition has lasted, or is expected to last, for at least one year or will result in death.

This is quite different from the VA system, where a vet can be partially or fully disabled (for example, 10%, 40%, or 100%). The vet will receive benefits based on the percentage of disability they're found to have.

Which Social Security Disability Benefits Can Veterans Receive?

Through the Social Security Administration, disabled veterans may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which is available to people who've paid into this program by way of working regularly and paying payroll taxes. The SSDI monthly benefit amount can range anywhere from $100 to $3,822 (in 2024).

Veterans can also qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is a needs-based program available only to people with income and resources below a certain level, regardless of how much they've worked. In 2024, the maximum benefit you can receive from SSI benefits is $943 per month.

More information about the types of federal benefits available to veterans can be found here.

How Do VA Disability Benefits Impact Social Security Payments?

You can receive VA service-connected disability compensation and SSDI 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 SSI 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 the amount you receive is above a certain threshold.

Read more about receiving VA and Social Security benefits at the same time here.

What Evidence Do You Need to Apply for Social Security Disability?

SSA will want to see all the medical records you have that pertain to the period of time you‘ve been unable to work, including treatment notes from your primary care doctor, blood work, imaging studies (MRI, CT scan, and X-rays), and hospital admission and discharge summaries.

For example, if you're filing a Social Security disability claim based on a PTSD diagnosis, you should submit evidence of the following:

  • treatment notes from a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or therapist showing their observations on how you're feeling (sad, angry, afraid) and acting (distracted, tearful, irritable) during your visits
  • a list of any prescription medications you're taking for depression or anxiety, including dosage and side effects
  • medical source statements by your regular doctors or counselors
  • results from mental status examinations showing any difficulty you have with short-term memory or abstract thinking, and
  • any inpatient hospitalization records.

Learn more about the medical evidence required by Social Security.

How Can an Attorney Help Disabled Veterans Get Social Security Disability Benefits?

Social Security disability attorneys work on a contingency fee system, meaning that they only get paid a set amount (25% of any back pay you're owed, capped at $7,200) if your disability claim is approved.

Many disability attorneys have worked with both the SSA and the VA. Some even tailor their practices specifically towards helping veterans get disability benefits. While it's not mandatory to have an attorney or representative for your disability claim, it's generally a good idea. Your lawyer can collect the right medical evidence and file timely appeals so you can ultimately get a hearing in front of a judge. (Most favorable decisions are made at the hearing level.)

Find out more about how legal representation works in Social Security cases or get a free case evaluation from a disability law firm.

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