When Disability Strikes Unexpectedly

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 04, 2013

Becoming disabled even for a short time can turn your life upside down. Extended disability can sometimes create financial problems and emotional stress.

Knowing what to do if you become disabled can help lessen the stress and financial burden of disability.

Check Out Your Options for Disability Assistance

If you've become disabled and can't work, financial assistance may be available from a variety of sources. Each program has its own eligibility requirements, so you'll need to do some investigating.

Here are key ways to get help when you are disabled:

Group disability insurance. Some employers offer group disability insurance. If you're disabled and can't work, most plans pay between 40% and 65% of your income before you became disabled.

Sometimes there are "waiting periods" before the policies begin paying benefits. These can range from 30 days to 6 months.

If you're healthy now but want to be prepared in case you become disabled, check out disability policies with your employer or your insurance agent.

Private disability insurance. Some people buy private disability insurance policies. You must do this before you're disabled.

Short-term disability insurance usually replaces part of your income for just 3 to 6 months. Long-term disability insurance may last until you're 65, depending on the terms of your policy.

Private disability insurance can cost between 1% and 3% of your annual salary, so a group policy through your employer may be more affordable.

Workers' compensation. If you are disabled while on the job, you may qualify for workers' compensation. This program typically pays up to two-thirds of your income before you became disabled. It also covers medical expenses to treat the work injury.

Regulations vary from state to state. Check with your state's employment department for information.

State disability programs. A handful of states offer their own disability insurance plans. To qualify, you need to have been paying into the program through payroll deductions. Your state's department of employment can provide more information.

Social Security. The Social Security program offers disability payments after you've been disabled for 5 months.

Benefits are based on money that was withheld from your earnings and paid to Social Security by your employer. If you haven't worked or paid into the Social Security fund, you will not be eligible for benefits. In that case, you may qualify for Social Security supplemental insurance.

Medicare. If you've been disabled for more than 2 years, you qualify for Medicare coverage even if you haven't reached retirement age.

Medicare coverage is particularly useful if your disability involves ongoing medical care.

Turn to a Professional for Help

Most people submit their initial claims for disability assistance on their own, says Nancy G. Shor, executive director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives. "But if you are denied coverage, you may want to think about talking to an attorney or an independent claims representative."

Appealing a decision to Social Security or workers' compensation may require appearing before a judge. The appeals process can be complicated and time consuming.

Keep Detailed Medical Records

It's crucial to keep detailed records to show you are eligible for assistance. "Some programs offer assistance if you are unable to perform the work you were doing before your disability," Shor says.

Others pay only if you are unable to perform any kind of work. You may be required to list all of the jobs you have done in the past 15 years. You will have to provide detailed information about your medical condition and what you are able (and unable) to do. Keep records of every hospital and doctor visit.

Since a disabling injury or disease can be overwhelming, it's wise to take someone you trust with you to doctor appointments or meetings that involve your disability.

Make a Financial Plan for Living on Disability

Even if you qualify for disability assistance, chances are your household income will be less than it was before you became disabled. Make a financial plan based on what you spend each month and the money you expect to take in. Try to bring your household expenses in line with what you expect to receive. That may require trimming your expenses and finding other ways to save money. If necessary, talk to a financial consultant.

Find Ways to Ease Stress While You're Disabled

Becoming disabled, even for a short time, can be very stressful. It can affect your partner and your family life. Finding ways to ease stress is crucial.

Helpful strategies include:

Or just do something you enjoy, like reading or listening to music.

Stress management programs have been shown to improve medical outcomes and help people who have become disabled return to work. If you aren't sure where to turn, talk to your doctor.

Be Open About How Your Disability Affects You

Talking about physical and emotional disabilities can be embarrassing and awkward. But it's important to acknowledge all the problems you have related to your disability. Communicating with your doctor is critical to getting the best medical care. Being open with your family and friends will help you get the support you need during a difficult time.

Show Sources


Council for Disability Awareness.

Nancy G. Shor, executive director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimant Representatives.

The Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education.

Return to Work Matters.

State of California Employment Development Department.

Texas Workers' Compensation.

U.S. Social Security Administration.

© 2012 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info