Disability insurance: a primer on coverage

Your monthly disability benefit depends on your average lifetime earnings. The amount also may be affected by your receipt of other government benefits. If you are getting workers' compensation, civil service, military, state temporary disability or state and local retirement benefits based on disability, the total amount combined with your Social Security disability benefits may not exceed 80 percent of your average earnings at the time of your disability. Should your total government benefit go over that amount, your Social Security benefit will be reduced. Disability payments from private sources do not affect your SSDI benefits.

Easing back into the work force

Once you're in the SSA disability system, you may be able to take advantage of federal work incentives and employment support programs that let you begin working again without immediately losing your benefits.

"The rumors on the street, saying that if you go back to work you're going to lose your benefits and your health care, are just simply not true," Cebula says.

The SSDI's trial work period lets you accumulate up to nine months of work -- not necessarily consecutive -- and receive full benefits no matter how much you earn. Any month in which you earn more than $720 or you work more than 80 self-employed hours counts toward the nine-month limit.

After the trial period ends, you forfeit benefits for the months in which your earnings are above the designated "substantial gainful activity" level, or $1,000 a month in 2010. Blind beneficiaries can earn up to $1,640. For an additional 36 months after the trial work-period ends, you can restart your benefits if your earnings drop below the gainful-activity level and you continue to be disabled.

If you are a working SSI recipient, your earnings may affect the size of your benefit check, but the first $65 of your monthly earnings, plus one-half of the remainder, is subtracted before the benefit amount is calculated.

Another federal program called Ticket to Work is available for those ages 18 to 64 who receive either SSDI or SSI benefits. It offers free access to vocational rehabilitation, training, job referrals and other types of services for work force re-entry. Your Medicare or Medicaid benefits continue while you participate in the program. To get started, you can contact a member of the SSA's Employment Network or the nearest state vocational rehabilitation agency.


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