En español | Yes, military veterans who become disabled during their service can collect disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability compensation at the same time. And many do. More than 950,000 former service members received Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) in 2016, according to the most recent data available.
The two federal agencies have different processes and rules for determining eligibility and setting payments, and getting VA disability benefits doesn't necessarily mean you'll qualify for SSDI. But if you've received a 100 percent permanent and total (P&T) disability rating from the VA, Social Security can expedite processing of your SSDI application.
How SSDI and VA disability compensation differ
You may qualify for VA disability compensation if you were injured or developed a physical or mental illness during your service or if a preexisting condition got worse as the result of your time in the military.
The SSA is not concerned with how you became ill or injured; rather, qualification for SSDI is based on your work history: You must have spent a certain period of time in “covered” employment — meaning jobs or self-employment in which you paid Social Security taxes.
Social Security bases eligibility for disability benefits on whether your condition is severe enough to prevent you from doing most paid work for at least a year or is likely to result in your death. By the SSA's lights, you are either disabled or you're not.
By contrast, the VA rates disabilities on a percentage scale, based on how much it thinks a particular condition affects your health and ability to function. The agency assigns different percentages to various injuries — for example, how much of a leg was amputated as the result of an injury, or which fingers.
If you developed multiple disabilities from your service, the VA has a complicated formula for combining them into a single rating. It's possible to get a 100 percent disability rating by having multiple conditions, even if none is totally disabling by itself. You also can have a 100 rating that's total but not permanent, if the VA expects your condition will eventually improve.
With SSDI, the amount of your monthly benefit is based on your lifetime average earnings in covered work. There is no sliding scale based on the severity of your condition; again, in the eyes of the SSA, you are either disabled or you're not. The estimated average SSDI benefit in 2021 is $1,277 a month.
VA disability compensation is determined by the rating the agency assigns to your condition. In 2021 payments for a veteran with no spouse or children can range from $144.14 per month for a 10 percent disability to $3,146.42 for a 100 percent disability.
There is an important exception to the VA's usual method of using your disability rating to determine benefits. If you don't have a 100 percent rating but are unable to hold a steady job that supports you financially because of your service-related disability, you may qualify for the VA's Individual Unemployability benefit, which pays at the 100 percent rate.
How SSDI and VA compensation can work together
If you have a 100 percent P&T rating from the VA, Social Security will speed up processing of your SSDI claim. To get expedited handling, enter Veteran 100% P&T in the Remarks section of your online application and provide Social Security with the notification letter the VA sent you about your rating.
Regardless of your P&T rating, you may qualify for expedited processing under Social Security's Wounded Warrior program, which prioritizes claims for veterans who became disabled while on active duty on or after Oct. 1, 2001.
Workers’ compensation and some other types of public disability benefits can trigger what the SSA calls an “offset” that reduces your Social Security payments. VA disability benefits don't affect your SSDI or vice versa; if you qualify for both programs, each will pay the full amount to which you are entitled.
Health care coverage
If you get SSDI and VA disability benefits, you can receive medical coverage through both.
Here's how it works: SSDI recipients are eligible for Medicare two years after the date they became entitled to collect benefits. Veterans are eligible for coverage under the military's Tricare program. If you're getting both disability benefits, Medicare becomes your primary payer (meaning medical providers bill it first) and Tricare serves as a supplement, covering some cost-sharing, such as copayments and deductibles.
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What about SSI?
Disabled veterans can also receive both VA benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the other Social Security–run benefit program serving people with disabilities. As with SSDI, veterans may qualify for fast-track processing of SSI applications.
VA disability compensation, however, will reduce the size of your SSI payment. That's because SSI eligibility is based on financial need as well as disability. In 2021 the highest income an individual can have and still qualify for SSI is $794 a month, which is also the maximum monthly SSI payment. VA benefits count against the cap.
So if you get more than $794 a month from the VA, you can't get SSI. If you get less, you can qualify for SSI, but your benefit will be reduced by most of the amount of your VA payment. For example, if you receive $400 a month in VA disability benefits, $380 will be subtracted from your monthly SSI benefit.
Keep in mind
- Disabled veterans whose condition is not related to their service may be eligible for a different kind of VA benefit, a VA pension. Income is a factor in eligibility for a VA pension, so receiving SSDI or SSI can disqualify you from getting the pension or reduce its amount. For more information, call the VA benefits hotline at 800-827-1000 or contact your regional VA office.
- While eligibility for Social Security disability benefits is largely based on inability to do paid work, it's possible to receive them if you're still technically on active duty and receiving your pay — say, if you are in a military hospital or assigned to a therapy program.
Published June 7, 2021