Can a 100% Disabled Veteran Receive Social Security Disability Benefits?

The other day a friend of mine introduced me to a veteran named Al at our local coffee shop. Al was frustrated because he is a 100% Veteran’s Administration (VA) Disability vet and is receiving VA Disability benefits but was recently denied when he applied for Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits. As we talked, Al told me he had served his country for six years and now suffers from PTSD and back issues.

After listening to Al discuss being able to receive VA Disability benefits yet getting—in his opinion, wrongfully—denied Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits, I explained that many veterans believe they can only receive one benefit, never both. In fact, many veterans receive both VA Disability benefits and Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits. Al was right to apply for the SSD benefits.

While the Veteran’s Administration (VA) and Social Security Administration (SSA) are both government agencies, they are completely separate from one another. I let Al know that the VA Disability system has its own guidelines apart from the SSA’s guidelines, and because they are two different agencies, results on disability benefits can vary. Al knew this from experience since he had been awarded VA Disability benefits while being denied for SSD benefits. On the other hand, he knows of a friend who was denied the VA Disability benefits yet was awarded the SSD benefits! Of course, Al and his friend knew veterans who had been awarded both disability benefits.

It’s important to understand that the Social Security Administration (SSA) examines the medical evidence in a different way than the VA examines it. For example, many PTSD cases involve the use of drugs or alcohol for self-medication purposes. In the VA Disability process, this may help the case; in the SSD process, however, drug or alcohol use can prevent benefits from being awarded.

The difference in the amount of benefits paid is mind-boggling: Veterans who are determined to be 100% disabled receive more than $3,400 a month with dependents, while Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits depends on how much has been paid into the Social Security Administration (SSA) while working.

At this point in my conversation with Al, another veteran named Stephen joined our coffee discussion. Stephen said he had learned the hard way about time requirements for filing appeals. Under the VA Disability process, he told me, the VA allowed him up to one (1) year from his VA Rating Decision letter in which to file his appeal. When he received the denial letter from the SSA, he figured he had the same length of time. Unfortunately, Stephen hadn’t read the letter for the Social Security Administration (SSA).

I explained to everyone at the table that morning that, while both agencies may send plenty of letters, there is important information included. If Stephen had read the letter from the SSA immediately, he would have learned that he—and anyone else who has received a denial letter from the SSA—only had 60 days to file his Social Security Disability (SSD) appeal. Unfortunately, by the time Stephen read his letter, he had to start the entire process over.

The veterans shared some new information with me, that is, the Social Security Disability (SSD) moves quicker than the VA Disability process. Frankly, that shocked me based on my experience with the lengthy process with the SSA. From the time an individual (called a “Claimant” in SSA) files a claim for Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits, nearly 24 months may pass before being able to stand before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) of the Social Security Administration (SSA). According to the veterans I was with, this is a short timeline compared to the years-long process it takes to receive a final decision for a VA Disability claims.

I explained to the veterans that most attorneys who represent disabled people who have applied for SSD benefits and/or VA Disability benefits, do so on a contingency fee basis; an attorney will only be paid if the claims are successful. In cases with a successful claim, a percentage of the past-due benefits or retroactive benefits and case expenses are paid. However, if no award is given, the Claimant will not pay anything—including attorney’s fees or costs.

I had to wrap up my coffee session with the veterans because my next appointment was waiting for me back at my office in Cranberry Township, so I quickly summarized our discussion for the group: Both the VA Disability benefits process and the SSD process are complicated. Legal representation, while not required, is important—a skilled disability lawyer who knows the processes and the law is often the best road to take. Most attorneys offer free legal consultations after the initial application has been denied, and they only get paid if the claim is granted (i.e., if benefits are awarded).

As I got in my car and waved goodbye to these new friends, I thought about how grateful I was to have had the opportunity to talk and learn from them. I also considered how thankful I am for the service they provided to our country and all the work they have done.