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Medical disabilities have a way of becoming financial disasters. American rules and regulations are especially complex. Here is a brief guide for navigating the arcane process of getting on disability retirement in the USA.

Most Americans learned what they know about disability retirement from the AFLAC duck.

The hapless AFLAC duck appears in dozens of commercials that air on nearly every free channel on American television. A horrible barber, an inept yoga student, but a great break dancer (at least compared to the pigeon also starring in one ad), the AFLAC duck inserts himself in dozens of situations to remind humans that the one word they need to remember for short-term disability insurance in the United States is AFLAC, which is the duck's signature quack. Every commercial introduces Aflacts, facts about AFLAC, which provides money for living expenses beyond major medical coverage for people who are sick and need cash, provided, of course, they signed up for a policy and started paying premiums before they were sick or injured.

AFLAC is the best-known example of short-term disability insurance. In the United States, a "short-term" disability is one that interferes with work for a year or less. Policies available directly from insurance companies, from unions, and from employers promise to provide an income when sick leave runs out (or maybe even earlier), with quick payment times and relatively relaxed rules for qualifying for benefits. A roofer who breaks a leg could qualify (provided, again, insurance is purchased before the accident). In some cases, a heart attack or cancer treatment that require weeks or months off work would be covered. 

Short-term disability coverage typically pays more and pays much faster, sometimes in just a day or two after filing a claim.

Long-term disability is a different matter. To qualify for long-term disability benefits, typically you need to have a condition that will keep you out of work for a year or more. You need to qualify for disability retirement rather than for sick leave. It takes longer to prove you meet the standards for getting your pension, and the monthly payments will be much smaller, often less than $1000 a month. 

If you have planned ahead, however, some options are clearly better than others.

  • Private or employer-sponsored disability insurance programs usually pay the most. Qualifications for benefits are stated in the group or individual insurance policy, and are usually awarded quickly, sometimes in a month or less after medical diagnosis.
  • Veterans benefits, for men and women who sustained injuries in active service in the military, may be partial or complete. A service-related injury may be rated as 0 percent, 10 percent, 30 percent, 50 percent, 70 percent, or 100 percent disabling, with corresponding amounts of disability payments. The Veterans Administration recognizes that injured service members may be 100 percent disabled for a short time, and gradually recover. Unlike the Social Security Administration, the VA does not award benefits on an all or nothing basis. Approval is usually slow, but there are multiple ways in which the VA supports military families.
  • Social Security benefits are hard to get. The rules for Social Security disability eligibility are arcane, unfairly applied, and incredibly complicated. Most applicants are turned down at least once or twice, and awards can take years. Social Security, however, is the only disability insurance most Americans can even apply for.
On the next page, we will discuss some often-overlooked considerations in increasing the likelihood of success of an SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) application. It's a long process that is loaded with ways to reject your application, so careful attention to details is essential..
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