Are you having trouble living on your current monthly Social Security disability payments? You’re not alone. Although SSD benefits help many disabled Americans, they don’t necessarily cover all monthly expenses like rent, food, and other necessities. But getting a monthly benefits increase can be surprisingly difficult, since most SSA processes are already so streamlined. So, is it actually possible to increase your Social Security disability payments? Short answer: Yes. For the longer answer, read on…
Monthly Social Security Disability Payments, Explained
Your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) is what determines the amount of Social Security disability income you’re currently getting each month. Initially, your PIA is based on your pre-disability earnings (or your spouse’s record, if you qualify for disability that way). Unlike other government programs (i.e., VA disability and workers’ compensation benefits), SSDI is not contingent on how disabled you are. How much your illness or injury affects your daily life is also irrelevant in calculating your monthly disability payments. Therefore, increasing your PIA is the only surefire way to increase your monthly Social Security disability payments. There are two ways to do that: through a COLA adjustment or twice-yearly automatic AERO recalculation.
Method #1: Annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), or COLA Increase
A COLA is the most viable way to increase your monthly disability payments. It applies to all SSDI beneficiaries without exclusion. If the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers goes up, an equivocal COLA increase takes effect in December of that year. The Consumer Price Index falls under the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Each month, they compile data noting any changes in prices paid by urban consumers for representative goods and services. (For example: They compare the average median price increase for a loaf of bread or gallon of milk over time.)
Any CPI increase is reflected as a COLA increase in monthly Social Security disability payments by the same percentage, starting the following January. Here’s an example to help you visualize how this works: In 2014, the CPI rose by 1.7%. In December 2014, monthly Social Security disability payments (paid in January 2015) also saw a 1.7% increase. Since there wasn’t a CPI increase in 2015, there also wasn’t a COLA increase in monthly SSDI for 2016. In 2020, a 1.6% COLA increase raised the maximum SSDI payment to $3,011/month. Finally, in 2021, the 1.3% COLA increase raised the max payment to $3,148/month. However, the current average SSDI payment is $1,277.
Even though a COLA increase affects your SSDI benefits, it has no effect on the SSI resource limits. To qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), an applicant cannot have access to more than $2,000 in financial resources. And if both partners in a couple get SSI benefits, the household’s combined resources cannot exceed $3,000.
Method #2: AERO Recalculation of Benefits
The second way to raise your PIA is by recalculating your benefits so you receive credit for previously un-credited earnings. This process automatically happens twice each year and is called an Automatic Earnings Reappraisal Operation (AERO) recalculation. Here’s how it works: When you start getting disability benefits, the SSA calculates your payment amount using the previous year’s earnings. This is typically based on your tax information or other documents submitted with your initial application to verify your earnings. Every year you qualify for SSDI benefits, the SSA compares how much money you earned the year before your disability began as well as the prior year’s earnings. These numbers are automatically reviewed to determine if any prior year’s earnings make you eligible for increased monthly Social Security disability payments.
These AERO recalculations happen automatically every March and October. If you qualify for higher Social Security disability payments from an AERO recalculation, you’ll get a notification by mail about a month later. Your next Social Security disability payment should reflect this increase as well as any retroactive benefits you’re owed.
In Rare Cases, There’s a Third Way to Increase Social Security Disability Payments…
While the two methods above are the only tried-and-true ways to increase monthly disability payments, there is one small exception. If you receive workers’ compensation benefits after becoming disabled on the job, it can also affect your monthly disability payments. According to the SSA, your combined workers’ comp and Social Security disability benefits cannot exceed 80% of your pre-disability earnings. Otherwise, the specific amount you get in monthly disability benefits is based on your previous earnings and cannot be adjusted.
You May Qualify for Legal Assistance
If you believe the SSA miscalculated your Social Security disability payments or deserve more money based on prior earnings, talk to a lawyer. A Social Security attorney can review your case and find any errors involving your Social Security disability payments.
If you haven’t applied for SSDI benefits, avoid confusion and unnecessary delays by speaking with an attorney. A legal professional can help gather appropriate evidence to support your disability claim and income to submit with your application. If you’re unsure of how any SSA changes may affect you personally, a disability lawyer can help clarify everything. Plus, having a lawyer file your claim makes you 2x more likely to get disability benefits awarded the first time you apply.
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