Disability, Survivor Benefits & Bringing it All Together

In Part 1 of this series, we introduced you to the official name of the Social Security program — the poorly named Old Age Survivor and Disability Insurance program (OASDI).

By now you have a better understanding of the “OA” part — your retirement benefits — today we’re going to get into the SDI side of the equation.

If you’re like most, you may not have the full picture when it comes to how disability insurance and survivor benefits work.

So, without further ado, let’s dive in. 

What are Social Security Disability Benefits?

Disability benefits are monthly payments that help you meet your basic needs if you have a medical condition that is expected to prevent you from working for at least one year, or result in death. 

For example, imagine this: After working as a nurse for over a decade, you injure your back so severely that you can no longer perform your duties or any other job. How would you survive financially?

This is where Social Security disability benefits come in. 

You could apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits here, and submit your medical records and other documents to the SSA. 

These monthly payments could be a lifeline to cover your basic needs if you become unable to work for at least a year due to a disabling medical condition or injury.

How do I Claim Social Security Disability Benefits? 

To get approved for disability benefits, you must check these three boxes:  

  • Have worked long enough in Social Security-covered jobs 
  • Meet the strict disability requirements set by the SSA 
  • Earned enough work credits (usually 40 total, with 20 in the last decade)

If the SSA approves your claim, you will receive disability benefits based on your average lifetime earnings covered by Social Security. 

There is typically a 5-month waiting period before you receive your first payment. Then, your benefits start in the 6th month.

Social Security will sometimes pay retroactive benefits for up to 12 months before you even apply, if they agree that you were disabled during that time and you meet all other criteria. 

The claims process can be intensive.

If you think you are entitled to Social Security disability benefits, your best bet is to consult with an attorney who specializes in helping with the claims process and can help you avoid problems.

What are Social Security Survivor Benefits?

These are monthly payments that help support your family members. Most often, this means your spouse or minor children. 

However, in certain circumstances, surviving parents, or other dependents may be able to receive benefits.

For instance, if you worked as a teacher for 20 years then passed away at 50, your surviving spouse could collect widow benefits once they turn 60. Your children would also receive payments until age 18 or 19 if still in high school, longer if they’re disabled. 

To further complicate things, your surviving spouse could receive benefits if they’re the primary caretaker for children under 16, and have income under $4,960 per month (as of 2024).

How do I ensure my family receives Survivor Benefits?

Making sure your family actually receives these benefits requires proper planning during your working years:

  • Maintain updated records with Social Security. You can check your earnings history and benefit estimates online by creating a “my Social Security” account
  • Make family aware of benefits and the claiming process (more on this below)
  • Keep all important documents safe and accessible

The younger you are, the fewer credits you need to be eligible for Survivor Benefits. However, since each individual’s situation is different, you’ll need to talk to an SSA claims representative for your specific options. 

How do I Apply for Benefits as the Survivor?

You can’t do this online. To apply for survivor benefits, you’ll need to:

  • Call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778)
  • Provide documents and information to prove your identity, relationship to the deceased, and eligibility for benefits

Apply as soon as possible. Some benefits may not be retroactive.

You can find complete and up-to-date information on how to apply based on your situation here

Bringing it all together: The Power of Coordinated Retirement Planning

To cap off our Social Security series, there’s one final thing to take into consideration: How it fits into the big picture of your life and retirement plans. 

Most people think of it as a three legged stool:  

  • Pension 
  • Social Security
  • Investments

If you don’t have a pension, then Social Security and investments have to replace that leg of the stool — because a two-legged stool doesn’t work. 

Also, from a planning perspective, if you delay Social Security to benefit from increased monthly payments, you might rely more heavily on withdrawals from your Roth IRA, 401(k), or non-qualified accounts. 

Consult your tax advisor or financial planner to plan these withdrawals. Without smart planning, you could face unexpectedly high taxes that negate your efforts.

Your Next Steps

By now, you can see how a better understanding of Social Security disability, survivor, and retirement benefits is critical. But putting together an integrated plan can feel overwhelming.

That’s where we come in. 

We’re offering a free, personalized Social Security analysis to show you the optimal claiming strategies based on your specific situation and goals.

Click the link below to get your free, customized report.

The opinions voiced are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

No strategy ensures success or protects against loss.

All investing includes risks, including fluctuating prices and loss of principal.​

Securities offered through LPL Financial, Member FINRA/SIPC. Investment advice offered through Good Life Advisors, LLC, a registered investment advisor. Good Life Financial Advisors of NOVA and Good Life Advisors, LLC, are separate entities from LPL Financial.