Back pay is exactly what it sounds like — money that pays you back!
In a disability benefits context, back pay is a lump sum you get from the Social Security Administration (SSA) on your first check. Disability back pay compensates you for benefits you’re entitled to, but haven’t yet received.
This term comes up a lot when we’re talking about disability benefits and payouts in the United States. It’s a simple concept, but like so much else to do with the law, it gets complicated pretty fast.
Today, we’re going to run through the basics of back pay — what it is, how and when you might get it, and how back pay benefits are calculated.
What is disability back pay?
Back pay is the disability benefits you’re entitled to, but haven’t yet received.
How much back pay you’ll get depends on many different factors, but the most important is which disability program you’re eligible for: SSI or SSDI.
Depending on your program, you’ll either get back pay for:
- The time between the onset of your disability and the time you were first approved for benefits
- The time between when you applied for disability, and the time you were first approved for benefits.
Once you are approved, you’ll get those benefits as one lump sum in your very first benefits check.
How do you get back pay for disability?
There are two major government programs that offer disability benefits and back pay — Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
There’s a lot to explain about the differences between these two programs. But put simply, qualifying for SSDI depends on your work history—and how much you’ve paid into Social Security. SSI is much more restrictive, and it’s meant for people with no other source of income.
While both programs offer some back pay, you are entitled to much more through SSDI. Here’s how back pay is calculated on SSI and SSDI.
Back pay on SSI
On SSI, back pay is fairly simple. You’re eligible for benefits and health insurance (Medicaid) from the date you apply.
In practice, this means you’ll get SSI back pay for the time that elapsed between filing your application, and it (hopefully) being approved.
If you’re wondering how to get SSI back pay faster, the only answer is to apply more quickly after you become disabled. You won’t get “more back pay,” but you will become eligible sooner, and thus receive more benefits overall.
Remember, there’s no way to get compensated for the time you were disabled, but hadn’t yet applied for SSI. That’s why after the onset of your disability, it’s important to figure out which program you qualify for and apply as quickly as you can.
SSI back pay in practice
Here’s how SSI back pay might work in a practical situation.
Imagine that you sustained a disability-causing injury on January 1st, 2020. You applied for SSI four months later, on May 1st, 2020. In another three months, your application was approved, and you got your first check on August 1st, 2020.
That check would include 3 months of back pay, covering the time between your May 1st application, and your first benefits check on August 1st.
Back pay on SSDI
On SSDI, you’re entitled to a lot more back pay but calculating it is much more complex. Here’s what you need to know.
You’re eligible for back pay to cover:
- Up to one year of time after becoming disabled, but before you applied for benefits
- Any time spent waiting for your application to be approved
However, on SSDI you can never receive:
- Back pay for the first 5 months after you became disabled..
- Health insurance (Medicare) for the first 24 months after you become eligible for back pay.
- More than one year’s worth of back pay benefits
SSDI back pay in practice
If you’re confused on how SSDI back pay is calculated, you’re not alone.
Not only are these waiting periods annoying to deal with and budget for, they can make it very confusing to try and calculate what you’re entitled to.
Let’s get some clarity with a few more practical examples.
- You were injured, and became disabled on January 1st, 2020
- You applied for disability benefits six months later on June 1st, 2020
- You were approved for disability benefits on January 1st, 2021.
You get back pay for the time between the time you were disabled (January 1st, 2020) and the time you were approved for benefits (January 1st 2021) minus five months.
There are 12 months between January 1st and December 1st — so you receive back pay for six months (12 months - 5 months = 7 months).
There is a limit to the overall back pay you can receive — you can never receive more than one year of back pay from before your application date.
- You were injured, and became disabled on January 1st, 2018
- You applied for disability benefits two years later on January 1st, 2020
- You were approved for disability benefits on December 1st, 2020.
Again, you’ll receive back pay between the time you became disabled (January 1st, 2018) and the time you were approved for benefits (December 1st 2021). But you can only claim up to a year’s worth of back pay, minus five months, for the period before your application.
You can claim your full back pay amount for the”pending” time between your application and your approval.
There are 24 months between January 2018 and your January 1st 2020 application date — so you would be eligible for 18 months of back pay for this time (24 months - 5 months = 18 months). However, you can only receive one year of back pay max for the period prior to your application, so you’d receive 12 months of back pay for the pre-application period.
You’d still be entitled for the full amount of back pay between your application and your approval — or the 11 months between January 1st 2020 and December 2020.
So your total back pay amount would be 23 months (12 months pre-application + 11 months post-application).
Next, let’s talk about how long it takes to get SSI and SSDI back pay.
When do you get disability back pay?
Finally, a (somewhat) simple answer! You’ll get all the back pay you’re entitled to on your first disability check — which should come 1 to 2 months after approval. That’s true whether you qualify for SSI or SSDI.
It’s important to note that back pay doesn’t change the total amount of benefits you’ll receive — it just means you get more of it as one lump sum. There’s no reason to apply for disability later in order to get “more back pay.” Especially if you’re on SSI, it’s important to apply for benefits as quickly as possible after you become disabled.
How much back pay will I get?
How much back pay you’ll receive can vary widely based on which disability program you qualify for.
SSI payments are often lower than SSDI — the most you can receive is $841 monthly for a single person, or $1,241 for a married couple, if you have no other source of income at all. And as we mentioned, you can only get SSI back pay for the period while you were waiting for your application to be approved.
Going back to our example above:
- You qualify for SSI and have no other source of income. You’re entitled to $841 per month.
- You’re entitled 3 months of back pay — covering the time between you applied (in May) and when you were granted benefits (In August).
- Your first check will include $2,532.00 of back pay (3 x $841.00)
Your SSDI benefits, on the other hand, are determined by how much you’ve already paid into the program by working. If you’d like to get a rough idea of what you might get, you can access the SSA’s online calculator by making a mysocialsecurity account. Just remember that it’s an estimate, not a guarantee.
Returning to our first SSDI example:
- You have a sufficient work history to be eligible for SSDI. You qualify for about the average SSDI payment of $1,300.00 per month.
- You’re eligible for seven months of back pay: from the time you became disabled (January 2020) to the time were approved (January 2021) — minus the five months "standard processing time" from the SSA.
- Your first check will include $9,100.00 of back pay (7 x $1,300.00).
Do I need a lawyer to get disability back pay?
Technically speaking, no — you don’t need a lawyer to get back pay.
But to get back pay, you need to actually win your case, and you’re three times more likely to be successful if you have legal representation.
Atticus will connect you with a vetted, trustworthy lawyer who will give you legal advice tailored to your own unique situation. They’ll also help set expectations, and assess what your first disability payment might look like.
Atticus helps hundreds of people a day find the right lawyer, and our services are always free. Take our Social Security Disability questionnaire, and learn more about what benefits you’re entitled to today.