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Back pay is an unofficial but widely used term for what the Social Security Administration (SSA) calls “past-due benefits,” payments to cover a period in which you were medically qualified for disability benefits but had not yet been approved to collect them.
Back pay is a common feature of disability claims largely because of how long they can take, particularly if an applicant is initially rejected and challenges the decision. If you win on appeal, a process that can take a year or more, Social Security will, in effect, make good on benefits you would have received had you been approved earlier.
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These past-due payments can go back as far as the date of your original application if the SSA ultimately determines that you met its definition of disability — being unable to do substantial paying work — at the time you filed the claim.
How back pay works
Suppose worsening arthritis sidelined you from your job Sept. 15, 2021. You applied Oct. 1 for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) but your claim was denied. You appealed and eventually got a hearing with an administrative law judge.
Based on new evidence you were able to present at the hearing, the judge ruled in your favor, determining that your disability did indeed begin in September 2021. Based on your earnings history, Social Security calculates that you're entitled to an SSDI benefit of $1,300 a month. But now it's January 2023, and you haven't drawn a paycheck in more than a year.
That's where back pay comes in. Fifteen months elapsed from the time you became disabled — what the SSA calls your “onset date” — to when your claim was finally approved. By law SSDI benefits have a five-month waiting period — they start the sixth full month after the onset date — so you're entitled to 10 months of past-due benefits.
Social Security typically pays past-due SSDI in a lump sum within 60 days of the claim being approved. If a lawyer or other professional advocate represented you in your disability case, the SSA will pay their fee out of your back pay.
The SSA must approve your fee agreement with a lawyer or advocate in advance, and the fee is generally capped at $6,000 or 25 percent of back pay, whichever is less. In this case, with past-due benefits totaling $12,000, your representative would get up to $3,000 off the top.